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Editorial: The Idea of North

Editorial: The Idea of North

Patrick Hart and Sebastiaan Verweij

[1]  In European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948; English trans. 1953), E.R. Curtius argued that the ‘Renaissance’ was a strictly Italian affair, and that the notion that France, Germany, Britain and other northern European territories experienced ‘Renaissances’ is to be rejected. Rather, he claimed, these lands experienced one or more waves of ‘Italianism’, ‘the export form of the Italian Renaissance’. Since Curtius, new discoveries and new ideologies have fuelled an ongoing debate over the grand narratives we use to conceptualize and periodize cultural production across the north of Europe.  It would be impossible to do more than gesture towards the nuances and ramifications of this debate here. A glance at textbooks across a number of disciplines, however, reveals that despite having been subjected to wholesale challenges and serious modifications, an ultimately Burckhardtian notion of the Renaissance has retained considerable currency.

[2]  One of our contributors, Jeffrey Chipps Smith, has recently argued in The Northern Renaissance (2004) that at least in terms of the visual arts the North did indeed see a Renaissance, but one in which ‘curiosity about the individual and the natural world was valued more than a renewed dialogue with antiquity’.  Locating its origins in Paris and the Netherlands in the late fourteenth century, Smith suggests 1580 as an approximate end date for the Northern Renaissance. In English Literature, however, the late 1580s saw the first appearance of works such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and are often taken as marking the beginnings of the acme of a Renaissance that culminates in Shakespeare, and whose earliest figures include Sir Thomas More and Sir Thomas Wyatt. John Milton, whose Paradise Lost was originally published in 1667, is still regularly taught on Renaissance Literature courses. William Bouwsma’s The Waning of the Renaissance (2000), which focuses largely on northern Europe and deals more broadly with intellectual history, spans the period from 1550-1640.

[3]  One of the motives behind the conception of the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, then, has been to offer a forum for serious interdisciplinary exploration of these apparent discrepancies in conceptualization and periodization. Feints towards methodological rigour in this area are too often undercut by an underlying reliance on stale, hazy narratives, and remain entrapped within academic disciplinary boundaries.  Both ‘Northern’ and ‘Renaissance’ are up for debate, both as to their meaning and their usefulness. Our seven contributors have provided a lucid and thought-provoking engagement with the north in the Renaissance  and the Renaissance in the north, one that we hope will stimulate equally provocative responses.

[4]  Jane O. Newman has written extensively on the phenomenon of Renaissance Studies itself as a historical product, drawing attention to the highly charged ideological motivations behind the privileging of the ‘Renaissance’ both as period and style, from the nineteenth century through to the Cold War.  Throughout the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries a number of German scholars (Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, Erwin Panofsky, Paul Oskar Kristeller) played a particularly prominent role in the establishment of the Renaissance as a prestige discourse in the Anglophone world. For many of these scholars, consideration of the Renaissance was inextricably linked to the Baroque, a critical term whose relevance to much of the cultural production of northern Europe has recently been revitalized by another of our contributors, Peter Davidson, in The Universal Baroque (2008). In her essay here Newman sets Walter Benjamin’s study of the German Baroque ‘mourning play’ (Trauerspiel) in the context of earlier German scholarship, posing pertinent questions as to why we still study the ‘Renaissance’ and the ‘early modern’ at the Baroque’s expense.

[5]  Jeffrey Chipps Smith investigates one of the most enduringly iconographic painters of the northern Renaissance: Albrecht Durer. Smith traces the formation of over five hundred years of civic and cultural identity in Durer’s native Nuremberg, focussing on its rich Renaissance artistic production. Yet, as Smith shows, in light of what he terms ‘the topography of expectation’ we must also be critical of Durer’s prime position in this narrative, since his many contemporaries are at times in danger of being marginalised.

[6]  In depth case-studies such as Rob Maslen’s investigation of Robin Goodfellow (or Puck) in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream explore the relation of the north to the south. This northern wood spirit, as infiltrant into what Maslen terms ‘a Greek extravanganza’, had an enormous popular presence in Early Modern England. In recovering the profile of Robin, as the good-natured playfellow of controversy, as the mouthpiece for freedom of expression, independent of all authority, Maslen urges us to rethink the enigmatic Puck and his function on the Elizabethan stage.

[7]  Adrian Streete’s reassessment of Francis Quarles’ early poetry, meanwhile, offers a subtle interpretation of the inter-relationship between politics, religion and literary endeavour in early seventeenth-century England. By shifting attention from Quarles’ Caroline writing to his Jacobean poetry, Streete demonstrates that moderate Protestant opinion was often no less vociferous in its criticisms of policy and social ills than other more obviously ‘radical’ writers. Ultimately, his essay asks us to rethink the kinds of political interventions that poets in Jacobean England were capable of making.

[8]  History, literature and religious controversy converge again on the stage in Kathryn Murphy’s exploration of Robert Burton’s Latin university play Philosophaster. Here, north and south are represented by Oxford (where the play was performed) and Osuna, Andalusia (where the play is set). The topicality of Burton’s play, so Murphy demonstrates, has long been misunderstood – and it is only in light of the Gunpowder Plot and its resultant fear of Jesuitism in England that Burton’s work fully comes into its own.

[9]  Peter Davidson and Jane Stevenson take us further north, to Aberdeen, and to Hector Boece, principal of King’s College. From Boece’s marginal scribblings in his copy of the Italian humanist Marsilio Ficino’s De Triplici Vita, the authors construct a richly suggestive narrative of Scotland’s interaction with the most contemporary renaissance ideas pertaining to astrology, architecture, visual art, and literature. Their passionate article, building on copious examples of Scotland as a refined and cultured nation with a very real renaissance of its own (often entirely ignored by critics), stands as a monument to what may be discovered of the northern renaissance in relation to the south, if we but know where to look. It is to be hoped that Scotland’s historians take note.

[10]  Andrew Hadfield takes us yet further afield, in a cogent account of the historiographies of the ‘northern people’ as written by Tacitus, Saxo Grammaticus, and Olaus Magnus. In particular, Hadfield unveils the influence such writings had on the English conceptualisation of the north and its peoples, represented as warlike, free, couragious, and as understanding ‘the real value of liberty’. Ethnographic models of ‘northernness’ are further developed and adapted in local, often nationalist, paradigms of political and cultural identity. Hadfield further shows how such ideals permeate imaginative writing (Spenser, Marlowe), demonstrating that the idea of the north is of enormous influence in the early modern psyche.

[11]  Thus, we have in our seven articles a large imaginative scope, touching on visual art, literature, religion, architecture, and also a historicisation of the critical understanding of renaissance scholarship in the early twentieth century.  They range from Nuremberg to Oxford, and from Sweden to Aberdeen. We are confident that these articles, individually and collectively, will stimulate new research, and be generative of further insights into what is the idea of north.

[12]  Finally, to conclude: in one of his Sonnets from Scotland, Edwin Morgan, Glasgow’s poet laureate and one of Scotland’s most popular contemporary writers, imagines the travels of the medieval Benedictine monk, historian, and polymath Matthew Paris, and particularly so his desire to map out the mysterious north. Morgan’s few lines (from ‘Matthew Paris’, in Collected Poems, Carcanet 1996) capture the long-lasting fascination of the north perfectly, and far more eloquently then we could here. His words may fittingly conclude this editorial, and stand as the mission statement of the Journal of the Northern Renaissance.

North and then north and north again we sailed,
not that God is in the north or south
but that the north is great and strange, a mouth
of baleen filtering the unknown, veiled
spoutings and sportings, curtains of white cold.
I made a map, I made a map of it.

The Editors

The Idea of the North

The Idea of North

Andrew Hadfield

[1]  The idea of the North in Western society has a long and distinguished history. Indeed, the only ‘purely ethnographic treatise that survives from antiquity’ is Tacitus’s Germania, his description of the Germanic peoples (Mellor 1993: 14). Tacitus produced his short treatise as a way of forcing Romans to confront the luxurious decadence that he felt had enveloped and deformed their society. The Germania was a companion piece to the Agricola, the life of the military leader, his father-in-law, Cornelius Julius Agricola, governor of Britain and ‘one of the most successful generals of the Flavian era’ (Mellor 1993: 10). Tacitus was also eager to contrast the hard liberties enjoyed by the barbarian tribes of the north to the soft yoke of servility that the Romans had experienced under the tyranny of Nero, as well as the abstemiousness and carefully regulated sexuality of the Germans and Britons to the disgraceful over-indulgence of the Romans. The North might be primitive and unsophisticated, but it had retained a humanity that the South was in danger of losing.

[2]  Tacitus’s two important treatises, vital as sources for our knowledge of the life of the Anglo-Saxons, represent a people who know their limits and stick to them. Tacitus grants fulsome praise to the marriage customs of the Germans:

Yet matrimonie is seuerely kept among them: the thing most commendable, of all their manner of life: for of all barbarous people, they alone consent themselues, euery man with one wife, except some very few: which not for vnruly lust, but for their nobilitie are sued unto for sundrie marriages. The wife giues not a dowry to her husband, but the husband to the wife. Their parents and neere kinsmen are present, when they giue any gifts the one to the other: which are not exquisite as to dantie dames, or for to beautifie and trim the new married wife: but oxen, and a horse with furniture, and a shield with a sword, and lance. With these gifts the wife is taken, and she also doth bring her husband some armes: this is the greatest bond: these are the secret ceremonies: these they thinke to be the gods of marriage. And least the woman should thinke her selfe exempt and free from bonds of virtue, or hazards of warre in the very beginnings and first speech of marriage, she is put in minde, that she commeth as a companion of his labours and dangers: and that she shall suffer and venture the same in peace and warre that he doth (Tacitus, trans. Richard Grenewey 1598: 263).

Tacitus’s instructive and leading contrasts establish a series of oppositions that were to be exploited and explored by numerous subsequent commentators, especially those interested in that most important of republican concepts, virtue. The Germans are heroic and noble because they live a hard life deprived of luxuries, obviously in pointed contrast to the spoilt and easy-living Romans. Marriage is the cornerstone of German society, an institution that forces those who accept its rules to understand its essentially egalitarian character. Marriage gifts centre around the need for the couple to survive and protect themselves, not to indulge their appetites and vanity. Women are respected as equals, and so have to endure the hardships of life alongside their husbands. In these ways the true value of marriage is established and accepted by the Germans. They regulate their bodies in order to create the building blocks of a society under siege, understanding the ‘bonds of virtue’ and the demands that are placed upon the individual.

[3]  The qualities of the Germans are mirrored by those of their noble opponents. Tacitus represents Agricola as a moderate and well-regulated man, another pointed contrast to the excesses of the Southerners, who seek to undermine his campaign and negate his virtue:

Now to the ende hee might temper and qualifie with other good parts his militarie renowne, a virtue vnpleasant to men of no action, hee gaue himselfe wholly to quietnesse and medling with nothing, being in apparel moderate, affable in speech, accompanied vsually but by one or two of his frendes: so that many, which commonly judge of great men by the outwarde apparence and pompe, seeing and marking Agricola, missed of that which by fame they conceyued, fewe aimed aright at the cause. Often was hee in those dayes accused to Domitian in absence, and in absence acquitted. The cause was neither matter of crime, nor complaint of partie aggrieued, but the renowne of the man, and the Princes disposition hating all virtue, and of the most capitall kinde of enemies commenders, procured the perill (Tacitus, trans. Henry Saville 1591: 263).

Agricola may be employed to fight the Northern barbarians by the Romans, but he resembles them more closely than he does his political masters. Like them, he exhibits an impressive self-control, is loath to show off, has disciplined tastes and appetites, and values friendship and loyalty above more obvious routes to self-advancement. Tacitus has mounted a forceful political critique of the Roman Empire in these two complementary books, one that is more direct and confrontational than the subtle political analysis of his Annals and Histories. These works were read as guides to political behaviour, justifying suspicion of sudden change and a belief that quietism was invariably the best policy, as well as a critique of the corruption of the powerful (Burke 1969: 149-71). It is not quite as easy to extract the same message from the Agricola and the Germania, as their purpose is to remind their readers of what Rome lost when the Republic was overthrown. The Republic was based on the idea of a shared understanding of virtue, public and private spheres reinforcing the common values of restraint, liberty and equality (cf. Skinner 1998). As Rome was overwhelmed by corruption in the last years of the Republic, the idea of virtue retreated from the open public arenas into more personal and private spaces so that, for Cicero, the last great defender of the Republic, virtue had become equated with friendship. Now, for Tacitus, Rome had so degenerated under the tyrannies of Nero and Domitian that virtue was something that had to be learned from Rome’s enemies, the Northern barbarian hordes. They could teach Romans about proper morality and its relationship to equality, showing how liberty needed to be tried, tested and under constant assault for it to be properly valued and to thrive. The only area in which Roman virtue was actually flourishing was in the army, where moderation and good sense prevailed. However, such virtue placed it at odds with the corrupt leaders of Roman society who could not tolerate the exposure of their own vices. In order to defend themselves they were prepared to let Rome sink even lower.

[4]  Tacitus has established a powerful model of ethnographic and political analysis, one that had a profound influence on subsequent European thought. The distinction between the sophisticated and decadent South and the hard, virtuous North, a geographical division that had an obviously sexualised element that could be activated almost at will, became a central feature of Europe’s understanding of itself. The idea that political virtue, especially Republicanism, had either originated in or travelled to the North was also a key element of debates about politics and society in medieval and early modern Europe. What did societies gain and lose as they became more sophisticated? Did they need to learn from their supposedly more primitive neighbours as well as those with obvious superiorities in art, literature and culture? As the English translations of Tacitus suggest, these texts posed particular questions for an English audience uncertain of its national identity and place within the pantheon of nations (Porter and Teich 1992). Should England look North or South for inspiration?

[5]  In exploring the answer to this question English readers turned to a number of compendious histories written in Latin, which functioned within the ethnographical paradigm established by Tacitus. Saxo Grammaticus’s The History of the Danes was widely available in Europe throughout the early modern period and was the source not just of Danish history, but one of the key works that established the identity of the Northern European nations. Saxo’s History, probably composed between 1208 and 1218, is most famous as the obvious source of Hamlet, and, although it is possible that Shakespeare obtained the story of the terrible dilemma of Amleth via François Belleforest’s adaptation in Histories Tragiques (1564-82), it is more likely that he consulted the original, especially given his taste for lengthy historical works (Bullough 1957-75: vol. VII, 3-79).[1] For other English readers the miscellaneous nature of the History, especially in its early books which relate the myths, legends and historical fragments of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland, made it a ‘treasure-trove’ of stories, allusions and episodes (Saxo 1979-80: II. 2).

[6]  In his preface Saxo represents Denmark as a dangerous land once inhabited by ‘a civilisation of giants’, a history that links his country to Britain (Saxo 1979-80: I. 9). In the most popular history of British origins, another Medieval Latin text readily available for sixteenth-century readers, Geoffrey of Monmouth describes Britain before the arrival of the eponymous Brutus as an island called Albion ‘uninhabited except for a few giants’, the largest and most savage of which is the ‘repulsive’ Gogmagog, ‘who was twelve feet tall’ (72-3). Corineus, the founder of Cornwall, defeats and kills Gogmagog, throwing him from a cliff onto the rocks, a place now known as Gogmagog’s Leap. Saxo represents Denmark as a land that requires equally brave and intrepid explorers, because

Such creatures [giants]…are today supposed to inhabit the rugged, inaccessible waste-land…and be endowed with transmutable bodies, so that they have the incredible power of appearing and disappearing, of being present and suddenly somewhere else. But entry to that land is beset with perils so horrific that a safe home-coming is seldom granted to those who adventure it (Saxo 1979-80: I. 9).

Denmark stands as a land that needs to be conquered and inhabited by heroes, a part of the North to be brought into the ambit of the civilized world, as Britain was many years before, or, as Saxo clearly implies, like the lands colonized by the Vikings and Norsemen represented in the sagas and chronicles (one of Saxo’s key points of comparison is Hrolf’s Saga Kraka, a legendary saga which narrates the history of the adventures of Hrólfr Kraki and his clan, the Skjöldungs, in the fifth and sixth centuries (‘King Hrolf’ 1961: 221-318)). Denmark is a land of magic and witches, supernatural forces that invariably threaten human attempts to establish normal life. Saxo emphasizes the hostile nature of the elements that conspire against mankind in his preface:

There is a story…of certain men who happened to be running across an ice-field when they pitched up into the depths of gaping crevasses which appeared before them; shortly afterwards they were discovered lifeless and not the merest chink remained in the ice… Rumour has it that whoever sips at a certain unwholesome fountain which gushes there falls dead as if he had drunk poison. Other springs are said to have the quality of ale. There are kinds of fire too which, though unable to harm wood, may consume a fluid such as water (Saxo 1979-80: I. 8)

If the ale spring is left to one side, the details depict a nature that actively resists civilization and forces men and women to confront the dark, ancient forces of the pre-Christian pagan world.

[7]  In having to combat the dangerous twilight supernatural world the peoples of the North have to be more heroic than their more civilized counterparts. As in Tacitus, the barbarians are especially hardy, generally immune to sexual vice, and enjoy equal marriages with women who possess their fair share of masculine qualities. Vithserk, king of Scythia, agrees to be burned alive with his warriors after he has been treacherously defeated by Daxon, rather than accept the tainted freedom offered to him by the victor. His father, the great Danish hero, Regner, has to be reminded of his duties by his wife:

When he heard the news, Regner in his grief was set on dying, for he not only went into mourning, but, with a heart completely stricken, confined himself to his bed and let groans reveal the sorrow he had suffered. His wife, whose self-reliance surpassed a man’s, chided Regner’s feebleness and fortified him with her masculine exhortations; she summoned his soul from its dejection, told him he must resort to energetic warfare and declared that a courageous father made better amends to a son’s bloodstained ashes through arms than tears. Further, she advised him not to whimper like a woman, for he would reap as much dishonour through weeping as he had previously gained glory by his valour. Her words made Regner fear he might obliterate his ancient renown for bravery by effeminate lamentation; he therefore threw off his sad demeanour and the outward marks of misery, and allowed the hope of a swift revenge to revive his dormant hardiness. So at times stout dispositions are strengthened by weaker ones (Saxo 1979-80: I. 289).

In the heroic world of the frozen North there is no time for excessive, emasculating grief. Immediate action is required as shows of weakness will lead to disaster. The dilemma that Regner faces resembles that of Amleth, who has to avenge the murder of his father, Orvendil, by his uncle, Fengi, who then marries his mother, Gerutha. Amleth, realising what has taken place through his own natural intelligence, feigns madness and bides his time. The opportunity for revenge arises at a feast. Amleth encourages the Danish warriors to indulge in excessive drinking, then wraps them securely inside a tapestry woven by Gerutha. Taking out the sticks he has prepared for this moment, he burns the palace down, cremating the inhabitants. Finally he confronts Fengi with his knowledge in the usuper’s bed chamber, and kills him with his own sword.

[8]  The story is much more straightforward than Shakespeare’s version, and Amleth succeeds to the throne, becoming a powerful king, and outwitting and killing the treacherous British king before perishing in battle. What is notable is Saxo’s unrestrained praise for Amleth’s heroic deeds:

What a brave man this Amleth was, worthy of everlasting fame! He wisely fortified himself by an incredible performance of stupidity, submerging under it a brilliant reason transcending mortal faculties; thus his wits provided him with a safe-conduct and kept him alive until he reached the moment for revenging his father. Considering the skill with which he preserved himself and the energy with which he exacted atonement, one can hardly decide which to extol more, his courage or his wisdom (Saxo 1979-80: I. 90).

There is no criticism of Amleth’s actions, simply a recognition that cunning and ruthlessness have to be exhibited by true leaders in the heroic world of the North. Amleth’s qualities are exhibited in other contemporary descriptions of successful rulers. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of Arthur, the first extended description of the legendary British king, sees Arthur discover that mercy is a dangerous quality in brutal times. Arthur defeats the Saxon invaders and allows them to leave for home. When they return, having ‘repented of the bargain which they had made’, he learns quickly, ordering ‘summary justice to be inflicted upon their hostages, who were all hanged without more ado’ (Geoffrey 1966: 215, 216). Arthur then defeats them again. Most kings, we realise, would not have been so lucky.

[9]  The story of Amleth continues in Book Four as the new king tells the Danes that he has restored their liberty, casting off his pretend lunacy and revealing that he has always been in control. The speech is probably derived not simply from Scandanavian sources, but also from Brutus’s speech revealing the treachery of Tarquin and the need for a republic after the suicide of Lucrece, as outlined in Livy or Valerius Maximus. Amleth descibes himself as

An agent of righteous revenge striving to fulfil my responsibility…Lamenting the violence to my father and fatherland, I wiped out the wretch who fiercely lorded it over you in a way men should not have to bear. Acknowledge a service, do honour to my abilities and grant me the kingdom if I have earned it; you see here the dispenser of this favour, no killer nor degenerate heir to his father’s power, but the lawful inheritor of the realm and dutiful avenger of fratricide. To me you owe the restoration of liberty, the abolition of the tormentor’s rule, the removal of the oppressor’s yoke, the murderer’s authority shaken off and the tyrant’s sceptre trampled underfoot. It is I who have stripped you of slavery and dressed you in freedom, set you back on the heights, repaired your renown, evicted the despot, triumphed over a hangman. The prize is in your hands. Since you know my merits, I ask you, out of your goodness, to bestow the reward (Saxo 1979-80: I. 96).

Amleth’s assessment of the situation in Denmark corresponds exactly to that in Rome after the banishment of the Tarquins. Livy argues that ‘The hard-won liberty of Rome was rendered the more welcome, and the more fruitful, by the character of the last king, Tarquin the Proud’, which is how Amleth represents the situation to the Danes (89). Brutus then assumes power in order to prevent liberty spreading too quickly and leading to chaos, again, a course of action that Amleth imitates by assuming the kingship. If such parallels can be substantiated—and it seems likely that they can—then Saxo is showing that the republican spirit that used to characterise Rome is now the preserve of the North. The tradition of republican liberty preserved by an elective kingship—a notable feature of Denmark, but also countries such as Scotland (see below)—developed independently. As that tradition has clearly declined in the South, it must be kept alive in the North, which would appear to be one of the key messages of Saxo’s History. Liberty can only be preserved through a constant struggle, as it is easy to become complacent and succumb to luxurious tyranny.

[10]  The battle between the two forces is played out by many of the kings who come after Amleth as Denmark teeters between liberty and tyranny. The struggle is especially marked in Book 6, which narrates the kingdom ruled by the kings who succeed Frothi III, culminating in the great warhorse, Starkather, whose reign enables Saxo to ‘introduce biting satire about the corruption of the Danish court under Saxon influence’ (Saxo 1979-80: II. 160). Frothi III’s grandson, Frothi IV, is an exemplary monarch, because ‘He did not expose himself to the vulgar lures of vice, as despots commonly will’. Instead he makes sure that his wealth is always on show in the public domain, and he tries to ‘overcome envy by his virtue’ (Saxo 1979-80: I. 170). Unfortunately he is succeeded by his son, Ingel, who ‘With a mind set askew from virtue’, abandoned the ‘patterns of his forbears and surrendered himself wholly to the baits of wanton extravagance’. While Frothi was a model of republican virtue and restraint, Ingel becomes the epitome of tyrannical vice and excess:

At variance with all that was good and upright, he grasped at vice instead of sound morality, severed the cords of restraint, neglected a sovereign’s duties and became a vile slave to riotous living. Any disorderliness or impropriety he cultivated to perfection…. So addicted was he to gluttony that he saw no point in discretion or moderation when catering for the appetite and had no desire to avenge his father or repel foes’ aggressions. He vitiated his noble lineage in sloth and idleness by leading the dissolute life of a voluptuary and his degenerate soul strayed along a crooked route far from the tracks of his forefathers, delighting to plunge into the most disgusting pits of filthiness (Saxo 1979-80: I. 175).

The story is the same as that of Rome, and it is hard to imagine that Saxo has not modelled his narrative on a work such as Tacitus’s Annals, making the link between Tacitus’s representation of the Britons and Germans and the history of Rome, a connection made by Tacitus himself. The advent of the Republic saw the establishment of virtue in place of the tyrannous vice of the Tarquins, who over-reached themselves with the rape of Lucrece. The end of the Republic, its institutions declining steadily throughout its final years, as Polybius demonstrated in his History, led to the re-establishment of tyrannous vice. Augustus, for Tacitus, was a mixture of virtue and vice, not without a great personal integrity, but unable to control the dark forces that had been unleashed by the return of unfettered monarchy (Eck 2003). But he was succeeded by the Julio-Claudians, and three notorious tyrants, Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, the level of vice increasing until the emperor fiddled while his city burned.[2]

[11]  This historical process has been replicated in the North, as the history of Denmark demonstrates. After the hard masculine virtue of Frothi we have the effeminate vice of Ingel, who panders to his every whim, as Saxo makes explicit with a clear relish for every damning detail:

His idea of greatness was to collect fatteners for fowls, scullions, frying-pans, all kinds of roasting and spicing meats. He could not bear to learn familiarity with arms, soldiering and warfare nor let others train for such exercises. Casting aside masculine enthusiasms, he emulated those of a woman, for his unbridled itch for guzzling was aroused by every aroma from the kitchen. Without a shred of sobriety he would always be exhaling the fumes of his last drinking orgy and with stinking breath belching out the ill-digested impurities of his stomach. His excesses were as sickening as Frothi’s military exploits had been glorious (Saxo 1979-80: I. 175).

Saxo employs the familiar dichotomy between masculine reason and its counterpart, restraint, based on the mind, and feminine sensuality, rooted in the body (McLean 1980; Schoenfeldt 1999: 35-7). Clearly such behaviour cannot continue in the heroic world and indeed help is at hand for Denmark in the form of the mighty hero, Starkather, ‘who loathed his [Ingel’s] debauches’, and so left for Sweden, ‘preferring work to ease’ (Saxo 1979-80: I. 175-6). In plotting his revenge, a protracted series of actions against everyone who has brought Denmark low, Starkather learns to let ‘Reason rule… his anger and check… his fury from bursting out’ (Saxo 1979-80: I. 176). The wheel has turned again as Starkather, in disguise, starts to follow the path that Amleth took, eventually returning Denmark to a more virtuous—albeit more bloody—state.

[12]  Such heroic masculine violence was not, of course, confined to the history of the North. The identical process is replicated in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, part two (published 1590), in which the harsh military virtue of the hero leads to the soft effeminacy of his son, Calyphas, who wishes to enjoy the fruits of his father’s labours. While the battle rages, Calyphas and his servant, Perdicas, indulge themselves and, in doing so, reveal to the audience how they envisage the world and their place within it:

Calyphas: Come, thou and I will go to cards to drive away the time.

Perdicas: Content, my lord: but what shall we play for?

Calyphas: Who shall kiss the fairest of the Turks’ concubines first, when my father hath conquered them.

Perdicas: Agreed, I’faith.

Calyphas: They say I am a coward, Perdicas, and I fear as little their tarantaras [trumpet calls], their swords, or their cannons as I do a naked lady in a net of gold, and, for fear I should be afraid, would put it off and come to bed with me.

Perdicas: Such a fear, my lord, would never make me retire.

Calyphas: I would my father would let me be put in the front of such a battle once, to try my valour.                       (IV.ii.61-75)

Calyphas wants to fight pretend battles with bare ladies, rather than see real military action. In many ways his self-indulgence comes as a welcome comic contrast to the brutality of the world his father inhabits, his silly jokes and banter with Perdicas a relief from the rolling thunder of Tamburlaine’s imposing mighty lines. The irony is that the self-enclosed world that Calyphas and Perdicas inhabit depends on the violence that Tamburlaine inflicts upon others. They live off his labour, expecting to harvest the concubines that he captures without working to earn their pleasures. Needless to say, it all ends in tears, when Tamburlaine duly stabs his errant son pour encourager les autres. Marlowe emphasises the point in the subsequent scene, which shows the noble fortitude of Olympia, widow of Captain of Balsera, who effectively commits suicide by persuading Theridamas that she has a special ointment that can repel a sword, anointing her throat, and encouraging him to try and stab her. These scenes, largely comic in design, I suspect, reverse expected gender characteristics and roles, juxtaposing the Stoic woman—like Portia in Julius Caesar—and the effeminate man.[3]

[13]  Tamburlaine is a Scythian, a member of another barbarian people most influentially described by Herodotus, who inhabited the vast open spaces of Asia Minor north of Greece, and were represented in similar terms to the peoples of the North: fierce, loyal, brutal, hardy and virtuous (Herodotus 1972: 271-89, passim). For Herodotus and other Greek authors, the Scythian lifestyle was an instructive contrast to that of the Greeks, and the barbarians could remind their more civilised neighbours of the fundamental virtues they were in danger of neglecting. Lucian’s dialogue, Toxaris, shows the Scythian, Toxaris, in conversation with Mnesippus, a Greek, as they debate the respective virtues of each race and the societies in which they live. The Scythians, as might be expected, are shown to value particularly masculine virtues: military prowess, especially archery (as the title of the dialogue indicates), resilience in the face of adversity, openness and honesty, proper respect for the dead, and friendship, seen in an especially male way:

Now, now, Mnesippus, listen to me, and you shall see how much more candid we barbarians are in our valuation of good men than you Greeks. In Argos and Mycenae there is not so much as a respectable tomb raised to Orestes and Pylades: in Scythia, they have their temple, which is very appropriately dedicated to the two friends in common, their sacrifices, and every honour. The fact of their being foreigners does not prevent us from recognizing their virtues. We do not inquire into the nationality of noble souls: we can hear without envy of the illustrious deeds of our enemies; we do justice to their merits, and count them Scythians in deed if not in name. What particularly excites our reverent admiration in the present case is the unparalleled loyalty of the two friends; in them we have a model from which every man may learn how he must share good and evil fortune with his friends, if he would enjoy the esteem of all good Scythians (Lucian 1905: III. 38).

The Scythian reminds the Greek that virtue should come first, ahead of issues of race and nation. The Scythians are able to absorb other peoples as long as they exhibit the qualities that everyone admires and values. Yet again, it is easy to see how the emphasis on friendship can be mapped onto an understanding of republican virtue and the ways in which the noble barbarian peoples have much to teach the effete civilisations that have lost their way through a plethora of the good things that the world has to provide. It is important to note that Edmund Spenser in his harsh military dialogue, A View of the Present State of Ireland (c.1596), has Irenius state that the Irish are descended from the Scythians, using Toxaris as evidence because it reveals that both peoples share similar traits and characteristics. Spenser’s representation of the Irish is notorious, as is his argument for aggressive military intervention to solve the problem.[4] However, the passage that refers the reader to Lucian’s dialogue opens up the possibility of a narrative of reconciliation, reminding the reader that the savage peoples – especially the peoples of the North – have more admirable qualities that adjacent civilised nations need to heed. Irenius transports the reader from a tale of savage customs to a commentary on republican/democratic political practices:

Allsoe the Scythyans vsed when they would binde togeather vowinge thearby to spende theire laste blodd in that quarrell, And even so do the wilde Scottes as ye maie reade in Buchanan and some of the Northern Irishe likewise. ye maye allso reade in the same booke in the tale of Arsacomas that it was the manner of the Scythyans when anie one of them | was heavilye wronged and woulde assemble vnto him anye forces of people to ioyne with him in his revenge to sitt in publique place for certaine daies vppon an oxehide to whiche theare woulde resorte all suche personnes as beinge disposed to take armes woulde enter into his paie or ioyne with him in his quarrell And the same ye maye likewise reade to haue bene the Anciente manner of the wilde Scottes which are indede the verye naturall Irishe, moreouer the Scythyans vsed to sweare by theire kinges hande as Olaus shewethe And so do the Irishe vse now to sweare by theire Lordes hande and to forsweare it houlde it more Cryminall then to sweare by god (Spenser 1949: 108-9).[5]

Irenius’s claim is that the Irish are descended from the Scythians because they both exhibit similar traits and characteristics. It is hard to state exactly how seriously this argument is proposed, but it is clear enough that the Irish are represented as a people who are Scythian in nature. Like the Scythians, the Irish are savage blood drinkers. Herodotus states that ‘the Scythian custom [in war] is for every man to drink the blood of the first man he kills’, which may be the passage that Spenser has in mind here (Herodotus 1972: 291; Spenser 1949: 340-1). But Irenius then uses the story of Arsacomas in Toxaris to show that a more collective and commonly agreed spirit of revenge for an ill could be confirmed among the Irish, exactly like their Scythian ancestors and their Scottish counterparts. Irenius now cites George Buchanan’s History of Scotland (1582), one of the key sources of a View, a move that has surprising and complex ramifications.[6] In doing so, Irenius suggests that the Irish practise a form of primitive democracy, a more admirable social characteristic than the blood-drinking (cf. Kliger 1950: 490-7). Buchanan’s History argued that the Scots, like other Northern peoples such as the Danes, had developed democratic forms of political representation, enabling the people to participate in the process of government, culminating in the practice of elective kingship, whereby the monarch ruled on behalf of the people who possessed real power.[7] The Irish may have things to teach the English about root and branch political practice, although such lessons can only be learned once the island has been reduced to submission after a bloody war of conquest.

[14]  The last detail, which connects the Irish mode of swearing oaths with that of the Scythians, is also significant. In citing Olaus Magnus, another key source of A View, Spenser is deliberately connecting the Irish to the other peoples of the North, all descendants of the Scythians. Olaus Magnus is used as a key authority linking Irish and Scythians. Commenting on the practice of Booleying, or transhumance (following herds of cattle in a seasonal fashion rather than establishing settled patterns of agricultural production), a defining feature of early modern Irish society for many English commentators, Irenius comments, ‘The which appearethe plaine to be the manner of the Scithians As ye maye reade in Olaus Magnus’ (Spenser 1949: 97-8). Commenting on the Irish use of broad shields, Irenius again cites Olaus Magnus as an authority to claim that they are Scythian in design and origin (Spenser 1949: 106).

[15]  Olaus Magnus’s compendious A Description of the Northern Peoples (1555) was not translated into English until 1658, but circulated widely in Latin and was the standard account of the subject throughout the early modern period. The work, which acknowledges its debt to predecessors such as Saxo Grammaticus, paints a familiar picture of nations characterised by their savagery and military aggression, masculine virtue, sexual restraint and democratic political forms. Olaus Magnus, like Saxo Grammaticus before him, is eager to connect the political history of Rome to that of the Northern peoples. In the opening book, there is a description of funeral monuments and their important role in exhorting the people to follow the examples of their dead rulers ‘to embrace virtue and abominate vices’ (Magnus 1996-8: I. 67). Accordingly, the Swedes built a series of obelisks and other monoliths, ‘wedge-shaped, rounded, oblong, or upright, and their lofty markings in Gothic letters give instruction, as if at the command of some ruler then alive, of what is to be pursued and what shunned by their successors’ (Magnus 1996-8: I. 67). Olaus Magnus then comments on the monuments that have not been built: ‘We must not doubt, either, that in those times a similar ordinance was observed in the kingdoms of the North against embalming the bodies of evil-natured princes and tyrants, to prevent them obtaining an honourable burial, just as the Roman Senate decreed, according to Marius Maximus and Aelius Lampridius, against the Emperor Commodus’ (Magnus 1996-8: I. 67-8). There follows a long passage from the compilation of late Roman sources known as Scriptores Historiae Augustae, which argues that the remains of cruel tyrants should be destroyed, concluding, after a series of descriptions of the infringement of personal liberties, with Commodus’s political crimes: ‘The man who put the Senate up for sale, who seized the inheritance from men’s sons, let him be dragged with the hook: because he lived for the ruin of the citizens and for his own disgrace. Therefore his statues are to be removed and his name erased from all places public and private’ (Magnus 1996-8: I. 68). The political ethos of Republican Rome has moved to the North and its citizens have inherited its mantle. Like the Romans, the Swedes honour the good dead and forget the bad dead, a practice reflected in contemporary biography (cf. Pritchard 2005, Backus 2008).

[16]  Book Eight, ‘On the Position of Rulers and Officials and on Military Training’, opens with a chapter describing the nature of elective kingship, a political process that Olaus Magnus evidently endorses. He describes the tyrannous behaviour of those who ‘try to hasten the attribution of the royal title to themselves by threatening to bring in foreign princes and at the same time enlisting violence and the aid of arms’, and whose fate will be a short and unhappy reign because ‘their authority, gained by force yet denied by the people’s wish, will be of short duration’ (Magnus 1996-8: II. 350). Such tyranny is a direct contrast to the open and fair nature of good government:

Whatever the outcome, that person always enters, endures, and departs more serenely who is called to the throne by the voice of a reasonably fore-sighted people, as someone who is considered the most distinguished and energetic in his spirit and courage, among his own folk and in the ranks of the enemy. For he believes nothing has greater priority, or consorts more with ancient tradition, than to make certain that his noblemen and people have just government, a strong defence, and lasting peace. When and if he carries out this policy, the people will not bear to let anyone else claim the honours of kingship (Magnus 1996-8: II. 351).

The case made is exactly the same as that made by Buchanan: that lawful kingship is in the gift of the people and only if their wishes are satisfied can the mutual respect between monarch and subjects function properly, ensuring the proper government of the state (Buchanan 2003: 161). Elective monarchy enables the different estates of society to work together for their mutual benefit.

[17]  The point is made later in the same book, when Olaus Magnus cites the political maxims of the Goths, showing that they have been especially successful in war because they are so good at uniting themselves under one ruler. The Goths recognise the importance of pulling together under a leader of their choice and the need to operate as an organism because ‘When sinews are cut the limbs weaken… Nor do bodies stand firm when the bones have been removed’ (Magnus 1996-8: II. 375). Olaus Magnus employs the familiar image of the body politic, the king serving as the rational head: ‘When many wish to govern, all lose government at once’ (Magnus 1996-8: II. 375: see Sennet 23-4, passim, and Hale, passim). But the trope is used to show that ruler and people need to be in harmony because the state is based on the principle of individual liberty: ‘An ignoble mind is neither anxious for liberty nor keeps a given pledge’ (Magnus 1996-8: II. 375). The warlike Goths are yet another example that virtue, if preserved by the hard life of the bellicose Northern world, will flourish.

[18]  A large section of Books 8 and 9, which are centrally concerned with issues of warfare rather than government, deals with the problems of misgovernment. Moreover, one of the key points of comparison is the history of Rome. Writing about the effects of a shortage of fodder for horses during a sustained campaign, Olaus Magnus turns to the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, and describes how Caesar’s army had to strip leaves form trees and crush roots because all the corn had gone (Magnus 1996-8: II. 459). Relating the cases of horses swimming with their riders, he turns to Tacitus’s description of the Germans who were experts at such feats (Magnus 1996-8: II. 504), and later cites Tacitus as an authority on German banqueting practices (Magnus 1996-8: II. 652). It is hard not to read Olaus Magnus’s emphasis on Northern virtue in terms of a Tacitean paradigm. As in Saxo’s History, great value is placed on sexual morality, and a straightforward equation is made between tyranny and immorality and proper government and admirable restraint and regulation of sexual behaviour. Indeed, Olaus Magnus follows Saxo in recounting, with considerable gusto, the crimes—sexual and otherwise—committed at the Danish court, through a ‘licentiousness born of inactivity’:

Virgins might not marry until their maidenhood had been plucked; foreigners they would batter to death with bones; others they compelled to get drunk with vast quantities of liquor until they burst. No man might give his daughter in marriage unless he had purchased their goodwill and assent; no one might conclude a marriage unless he had first bought their permission with a bribe. Furthermore, it was not only to virgins but also a host of married women that they indiscriminately offered their acts of abandoned lust. They were driven by a kind of double frenzy, licentiousness mingled with ferocity, and strangers and guests were treated to abuse instead of welcome. Such were the many scornful provocations found among this lewd and impudent crew, for under a boy king recklessness was fostered by liberty (Magnus 1996-8: II. 384).

This is not, of course, true liberty, but the false licentiousness generated by tyranny. The bonds of marriage and sexual restraint break down; corruption sullies everything; nothing can be achieved without bribery; the rules of hospitality are routinely broken and the worst aspects of human behaviour flourish. Here, in miniature, we have a description that condenses all the vices of the Julio-Claudian courts—in particular the onset of vice under Nero—into a paragraph, a comparison that Olaus Magnus, following Tacitus, undoubtedly has in mind (cf. Mellor, 13, 52-3). Elsewhere Olaus Magnus cites Cicero to show that the worst of the Northern kings are more degenerate and corrupt than their Roman counterparts: ‘Cicero tells us that the sadistic Verres destroyed one harmless man in the reek emitted by rotten logs; but with this Jösse [a Dane put in charge of Sweden ‘in order to disembowel her’], who was possessed by the same spirit of malice, it was not one but innumerable innocent inhabitants of Dalecarlia whom he hung over smoke and killed’ (II.  379). Olaus Magnus, as a Swede, has a particular animus against the Danes, their rivals and often overlords, and he uses Saxo to good effect to recount the vices and atrocities of Denmark. Nevertheless, the points of comparison and the moral nature of the political story of the History are clear enough. Olaus Magnus describes with approval the character of the hard fighting men of the North:

In fact, to sum up, valiant and trusty men, though they are exceedingly scarce, work with the aim of preserving a harmonious fellow-sympathy among the prince’s subjects, and to ensure that limits to tax or possessions, appointed and put in writing, shall in the interests of general public peace remain inviolable. Such courageous individuals also show great daring in tackling dangers, and much wisdom in making their way out of troubles, because their will cannot be overcome by any suffering, nor their body weakened by any tribulations or distresses. They are content to seek the hard ground or flint-stones for their repose rather than a soft bed, which is fit for the milksop who carries no weapons (Magnus 1996-8: II. 445).

The last sentence might well stand as a metonymic detail encapsulating the character of the North. The tough nature of the people means that they will not stand for tyranny and, in the end, good will always triumph because ‘no oppression by tyrants remains unpunished for ever’ (Magnus 1996-8: II.  438). The warlike Northerners have learned how to fight back for their own good and have established patterns and practices of government that their more privileged neighbours would do well to heed and copy. The Northerners understand the real value of liberty and have no interest in the superficial trappings of ornate and decadent culture, especially when privilege is perceived as an entitlement rather than a right which can be, but has to be, earned. Readers in England had to work out how Northern they were in nature and act accordingly.

University of Sussex


[1] For an ingenious attempt to reconstruct Shakespeare’s working library, see Bate 2008, ch. 9. [back to text]

[2] Nero was actually supposed to have played the lyre. For the history of his reign, see Malitz 1999. More generally, see Le Glay, Voisin and Le Bohec 2001. [back to text]

[3] On Portia see Marshall 2002: 170-87. [back to text]

[4] See, for example, the discussion in McCabe 2002, especially part 2. [back to text]

[5] For commentary on Spenser and Lucian’s Toxaris, see Coughlan 1989: 61-8, and Hadfield 1997: 105-7. [back to text]

[6] For further discussion, see Hadfield 2009 (forthcoming). [back to text]

[7] The argument is outlined more fully in Buchanan’s Dialogue. For commentary, see Kingdon 1991: 215-8; Burns 199: 138-58; and Burns 1996. [back to text]


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Periodization, Modernity, Nation: Benjamin Between Renaissance and Baroque

Periodization, Modernity, Nation: Benjamin Between Renaissance and Baroque

Jane O. Newman

The history of this age and its taste is still very obscure ’.
(Johann Friedrich Herder on the Baroque, cited in Benjamin 1977: 167)

I. Periodization, Modernity, Nation
[1]  Herder’s claim already more than two hundred years ago that the history of the Baroque was ‘obscure’ (the German reads: ‘im Dunkeln’, in the dark) is just as appropriate in our early twenty-first century as it was in his day, this in spite of the enormous amount of attention devoted by literary, art historical, and art theoretical scholars to both the period (c. 1550-1700) and its styles in the intervening years. Walter Benjamin was one of those engaged in the debates about the Baroque that were conducted with particular intensity beginning in the last decades of the nineteenth century and on into the early part of the twentieth century. The period and the concept are in fact at the centre of his (in)famously obscure The Origin of the German Tragic Drama (1928), which Benjamin often referred to as his ‘Barockbuch’, as, for example, in a letter to Gershom Scholem of 19 February, 1925 (Benjamin 1993: I, 374). Debates about the Baroque spread from the German-speaking countries of central Europe into the United States along with many of the European émigrés who found their new academic homes and livelihoods there during and after World War II. (Benjamin was of course not among them, having taken his own life in 1940 as he fled the Gestapo.) In their new home, these debates flowered in both explicit and implicit dialogue with the heavily ideological celebrations of the value of studying the Renaissance in the Cold War ‘New World’, celebrations also conducted by immigrant scholars with the help of ‘indigenous’ colleagues familiar with the landscape of pre- and inter-war European academe (Newman 2006). The Baroque nevertheless disappeared from the scene quite abruptly beginning in the mid- to late 1970s. Ever since, Renaissance and Early Modern Studies, often seen as antithetical to one another (Marcus 1992), have joined forces to jostle it aside. Because these latter terms are the ones that dominate the complex politics of period nomenclature that organize much academic discourse about the study of the late fifteenth through the early seventeenth centuries today, it is worth revisiting both the chronology and the substance of their rise to a position of dominance in their original context and then considering the role of ‘northern Renaissance Studies’ in our post- or (perhaps somewhat differently configured) neo-Cold War world, depending on where one stands. To what end do we still study the Renaissance and Early Modern (rather than the Baroque) today? What are the assumptions and consequences of doing so as a matter of place?

[2]  Issues of place (‘northern’) and period (‘Renaissance’ Studies) are often related. I address periodization first. Michel de Certeau has argued that historiography creates periods by ‘selecting’ ‘between what can be understood and what must be forgotten in order to obtain […] intelligibility’ (4). Periods so constructed become ‘reified’ and ‘self-evident’ (Davis 2008: 10). The conditions under which they came into being are thus forgotten in turn, as is the ideological work of elision that periodization performs. De Certeau nevertheless notes that there are always ‘shards created by the selection’ process, ‘remainders left aside by explication’ which ‘surviv[e]’ and ‘come back’ to ’discreetly perturb [the] system of interpretation’ constructed by their repression (4). The example of the production of the ‘Middle Ages’ as a period is particularly revealing of both the work of elision and the return of the repressed that de Certeau describes, and has recently been the object of much welcome theorization. Scholars have pondered, for example, the ways in which the ‘periodizing operation’ has over and over again found in the medieval a counterpoint to the tempos and concerns of an ‘enlightened’ ‘modernity’ that characteristically uses its ‘forgetting’ of a devout Middle Ages to identify itself as marching ever forward in a ‘telic’ trajectory of rational progress (Davis 2008: 4). At the same time, the invocation of the medieval has functioned in and for post-modernity as a way of divesting the present of precisely such putative ‘advances’, of the ‘baggage of humanism, capitalism, […] and triumphalist individualism’ (Holsinger 2005: 197), in other words, when it reaches back over the demon Enlightenment to find the origins of a post-modern ‘now’ free of an instrumentalizing modernity’s downsides (Davis 2008: 5-6). (As much as the progressive narrative of ‘forgetting’ the Middle Ages may seem to be challenged here, it is still the ghost in the machine. In embracing the medieval as ‘modernity[‘s] most consistently abjected […] temporal other’, the post-modern in fact finds in the pre-modern ‘transformative’ and energizing ways to (re)invent itself as the new custodian of ‘redemptive’ forms of mysticism, eroticism, irrationalism, and so on, inherited from a past previously silenced, but now reborn — Holsinger 2005: 5). The medieval past is neither ‘simply inherited’ nor ‘patiently reconstructed’ when it is ‘translated’ into the present in these ways. Rather, in both cases, it is ‘invoked’, ‘called into being’, and, ‘summoned’ as a ‘relic’ ‘from another place’, to become the centerpiece of a ‘whole system of thought’ that, whether modern or post-modern, consumes and replaces it (Holsinger 2005: 202, 4).

[3]  As revealing as contemporary critical periodization theory has been of the stakes involved in the role that the Middle Ages have been asked to play in the story of modernity, it has not yet addressed the full range of dyads in whose toils the medieval as the origin of the un-modern has classically been caught. Nor has the role of location, or place, been assessed in relation to these pairs. One of the most salient examples of why it is necessary to think period and place together of course involves the well-known claim that it was in fact the Renaissance (rather than an Enlightened ‘modernity’) that first broke with the Middle Ages and, in so doing, became what Jakob Burckhardt in 1860 so famously called the ‘mother’ of modern civilization in ‘Europe’ (21-2). It was (and often still is) this Renaissance—cannily defined as taking a step backwards in order to ‘progress’ beyond the medieval by resuscitating and fulfilling the promise of antiquity in its inauguration of a new ‘modern’ age—that has driven the narrative of modernity just as much as (yet also in tandem with) the Enlightenment. When understood in this way, the European Renaissance participates in what Julia Lupton has called the ‘typological’ logic that is ‘one of the foundational principles of modern periodization’ (23), a logic based on a hermeneutics of imitation, emulation, and figuration, whereby, just as the New Testament and Christianity are said to both repeat and complete—and thus contain, supersede, and cancel out—the Old Testament and Judaism too, the Renaissance resurrects, repeats, and replaces antiquity. When we ‘nationalize’ the European Renaissance by studying it via a typological calculus operating only within the confines of and culminating in the literary and cultural traditions of a single nation-state, in departments and seminars of English, French, or Italian, for example, we sacralize the state’s cultural production in a similar way. When, in other words, the Renaissance as a historiographically and institutionally produced period is asked to mark the accession of a national tradition to its ‘modern’ maturity, it is deployed in uncritical fashion to play a role not unlike the one that many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theorists of the vernacular asked their traditions to play in the first place—this in spite of both the ‘secularizing’ work that Renaissance humanism allegedly did and the border-felling, pan-European universalism of the ‘Renaissance’ traditions with which we all deal. Medievalist and theorist Kathleen Biddick aptly calls this kind of period logic ‘supersessionary’ (2). It is worth asking whether it was not some version of a supersessionary Renaissance that became the banner under which not only the nineteenth- and early twentieth century European nation-states and the Cold War U.S. (as the custodial inheritor of the traditions that the Europe of two world wars could no longer protect), but also many other world cultural traditions (such as the Arab, Harlem, and Maori Renaissances, and more recently, the continent-spanning ‘African’ Renaissance too—see Schildgen 2006 and Ngugi 2009) marched in the interest of finding a seat at the table of ‘modernity’. Where is the project of a regionalist ‘northern Renaissance’ located with respect to such trends?

[4]  Burckhardt’s ‘modern’ Renaissance in Europe was of course originally joined at the hip with another period in addition to the medieval, namely, the Baroque, in a somewhat differently configured, although similarly dyadic debate, by both Burckhardt himself and his student and friend, Heinrich Wölfflin, most famously in his Renaissance and Baroque (1888) (see Brown 1982 and Warnke 1991). It has often been argued (incorrectly, I think) that in the Renaissance-Baroque relation, Wölfflin set the former above, over, and against the latter by characterizing the Baroque as the Renaissance’s ‘decay’, and in the process created the ‘historiographical monstrosity’ (Hampton 1991) that the Baroque has become. Quite understandably, it is this Baroque that is often thought of these days as an alternative to the progressive genealogies of modernity associated with the periods said to have both preceded and followed it, namely, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, as the post modern avant la lettre, so to speak (see Moser 2000). It is also this Baroque that has been aligned with the neo-Baroque of the Latin American ‘margins’ (see Beverly 1988). Such readings of the Baroque as iconoclastic (by Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Gilles Deleuze, among others) and anti-hegemonic of course often cast themselves as indebted to Benjamin’s work. And yet, at its very birth moment as a historiographic category in and around the time when Benjamin was writing his ‘Baroque book’, the period he was studying was in fact never all that far from the Renaissance; indeed, it was most often locked in an uncomfortable embrace with it as both an epoch and style. Indeed, as much as many theorists seem to have protested their entwinement at the time, the immense amount of energy spent trying to determine the extent of the Baroque’s ‘resistan[ce] to [the] typological’ model (Lupton 1996: 34-5), and thus its categorical difference from the Renaissance, testifies to the difficulty of discerning and defining that difference.

[5]  I argue here that while Benjamin’s inter-war project may be understood as trying to disentangle the Renaissance and the Baroque from one another in the case of German literature in particular, it often falls short of this goal. Its failures, or, if that is too strong, the struggle it enacts over the imbrication of the two periods is revealing of just how complicated it was (and still is) to disrupt the alignment of the Baroque with a Renaissance-like supersessionary model of the nation in the highly volatile contexts in which debates about periodization often occur. Such projects are in the end handicapped by the irreducible forward thrust of the figurative agenda that is at the heart of the period logic that emerges when the ideology of the nation is under duress; the power of the Baroque to offer a critical political perspective is hobbled as a result. This is not to conclude that the Baroque can never function as a challenge to a typologically framed and localized Renaissance. But both the timing and outcome of Benjamin’s attempt at period theorization in the Tragic Drama book call attention to the ways in which, although originally developed from a place of critique, even heterodox period concepts like the Baroque (and the post-modern, the post-colonial, and so on) tend to collapse into essentialism when yoked together with a politics of place. Examining at close range how period and place intersected in the case of Benjamin’s German Baroque may provide an interesting purchase from which to observe the regionalist project of a ‘northern Renaissance’ as a possible alternative.

II. Benjamin and the Baroque
[6]  The Tragic Drama book was ‘[c]onceptualized’, as Benjamin writes on the dedicatory page, in 1916, just one year after Heinrich Wölfflin published his famous Principles of Art History, in which the distinction between the two periods and styles that he had already theorized in his Renaissance and Baroque (1888) was articulated and illustrated in exhaustive detail. It is thus no surprise to discover that Benjamin took on a similar project when he embarked on his analysis of the contest between what he saw as a problematically ‘progressive’ version of the Baroque represented as the ‘German Renaissance’, on the one hand, and a recursive and thus potentially disruptive ‘German Baroque’, on the other, intending to crown the latter as the ultimate victor. He did so, moreover, as part of a subtle argument about the dangers of using periods to conceive of a specifically German modernity whose identity could only lie in the fulfilment of a kind of figural period logic, with past and foreign cultural achievements both absorbed and outdone by the nation’s present glory. The full title of the Tragic Drama book is after all The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, which many scholars forget. Benjamin’s ‘natural history’ of the ‘form of the [German] Trauerspiel’ (Benjamin 1977: 47, 53), which he understands as an un-Renaisssance-like ‘process of restoration’ that is always ‘imperfect and incomplete’ (45), thus presented itself as a challenge to the notion of a hegemonic place from the very start.

[7]  Benjamin’s Tragic Drama book theorizes the ‘origin’ (‘Ursprung’) rather than the ‘genesis’ (‘Entstehung’) of the German Baroque (45). The terms—and especially ‘origin’, which resonates here in complex counterpoint with Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘birth’ (‘Geburt) of tragedy—have occasioned much discussion and debate, very little of it about the issue of periodization, however. That the text can—and should—be read as part of a conversation at the time about how to conceive of literary historical phenomena in a new way becomes clear when we consider the many ways in which it engages with the work of a whole host of contemporary literary and art historians and art theorists, many of whom were worrying at precisely these issues. The Tragic Drama book was just one volume, in other words, in what we can imagine as ‘Benjamin’s Library’, in literal terms, the holdings of Baroque-era texts and secondary studies of the Baroque in the Prussian State Library on Unter den Linden in Berlin, where he did much of his research for the book, and more figuratively, the greater archive of books and journals in which can be found the discussions that yielded the questions he poses in its pages. The dimensions of this archive are marked by Benjamin’s citations in both the body of his text and in the extensive notes that accompany it. Reconstructing several representative dialogues between his ‘Baroque book’ and the arguments of those of Benjamin’s interlocutors who periodized specifically on behalf of the German nation around the same time may help reveal not only how confusing such debates about periodization were, but also how his recalcitrant theory of ‘origin’ may have been developed in response to them. And yet, while Benjamin’s decision to involve himself in these debates may be understood as opportune, his final position in them was far from clear. Indeed, between 1871 and the ‘triumphant’ coming into being of a German ‘nation’ in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war, on the one hand, and that nation’s definitive defeat in 1918, on the other, finding an answer to the question about exactly when Germany’s ‘modernity’ could be said to have started, and whether the havoc it had wrought on both itself and its neighbors could actually be understood as advancing civilization or not, was no easy task. Some years later, in 1931, Benjamin wrote that his ‘conception of history’ was decisively ‘against the possibility of an evolutionary and universal[izing] component in history’ (Benjamin 1986: 442-3). The Tragic Drama book, completed in the post-war hunger years, is clearly skeptical about the implications of progressivist claims about a possible ‘Renaissance’ of Germany in the Baroque. It nevertheless does not always succeed in removing the latter period from the narrative of national fulfilment into which it had already been scripted at the time.

[8]  In 1935, just seven years after Benjamin’s book on the German tragic drama appeared, the Parisian publishing house of Gallimard released a slim volume entitled On the Baroque by the Spanish philosopher and man of letters, Eugenio d’Ors. D’Ors’s whimsical meditation captures the shape of the debates about the period at the time. At the end of the preface, for example, D’Ors characterizes his book as a ‘fairy tale’ (15) about his love affair with the Baroque. The term appears not to have been chosen lightly; d’Ors writes that ‘Baroquism has something of a fatal femininity, a siren-like prestige, about it’ (11). In addition to its un-manly anti-classicism, it may have been the seductive fecundity of the period that appealed to him, a fecundity that d’Ors inventories in an idiosyncratic chart, entitled ‘Genre: Barocchus’, midway through the book (161). There, in Linnean fashion, he indicates that the Baroque is far more than an ‘oddly shaped pearl’ or ‘the fourth mode of the second figure in the scholastic nomenclature of syllogisms’ that René Wellek would famously cite, but then reject, as possible definitions some ten years later in his ‘The Concept of Baroque in Literary Scholarship’ (1946). Rather, d’Ors’s Baroque spills out over the borders of the categories discussed by Wellek (and repeated more recently by Moser 52000: 78-9) and wanders (to extend d’Ors’s sexualizing metaphorics) promiscuously throughout cultural history, appearing as the ‘Barocchus macedonius’ and the ‘Barocchus romanus’, the ‘Barocchus buddhicus’ and the ‘Barocchus tridentius, sive romanus, sive jesuiticus’ in turn. According to d’Ors’s chart, there have been no fewer than 20 ‘species’ of the Baroque since the ‘prehistoric’ ‘Barocchus pristinus’ ‘among the savages’ (162). The chart ends with version 22, the ‘Barocchus posteabellicus’ of d’Ors’s—and Benjamin’s—own immediate, wartime and post-Great War time (171). For d’Ors, the Baroque was thus less a specific period than a ‘constant of culture’ (99) adamantly liberated from a particular sequence and place. The claim is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s description, in his Human, All too Human of 1879, of ‘Baroque style’ as a ‘timeless phenomenon that periodically recurs’ (see Barner 1975: 569) in ways that are clearly antithetical to the progressivist typological model.

[9]  Undertaken in a study originally intended as an academic thesis, Benjamin’s ‘love affair’ with the Baroque a decade earlier was somewhat more staid than d’Ors’s. It nevertheless also did battle—although ultimately with somewhat less success—with literary historical attempts to integrate the period that since Gottsched had been much maligned in the German tradition into a supersessional model. The political, ideological, and aesthetic categories involved in such teleological constructions of literary history as a ‘national’ project were objects of particularly intense scrutiny in Germany beginning in the years after 1871. Petra Boden has shown that the often nationalistically inflected academic reform programs undertaken with greatest vigor in late nineteenth-century Germany benefited a curious collection of maverick periods, including Romanticism, Biedermeier, and the Baroque.  Many of the scholars whose work Benjamin cites in the Tragic Drama book were caught up in such efforts and contributed in various fashions to a constellation of discourses which, up through the 1910s and 1920s, did not find the period ‘obscure’, ‘marginal’, or heterodox in ways that many students of Benjamin (and sometimes Benjamin himself) might have preferred. Rather, the Baroque was understood by many at the time as a privileged and even ‘fashionable’ (Walzel 1917: 42) object of study, a field in the midst of its ‘heroic’ phase (Voßkamp 1991: 684) and ‘golden years’ (Alweyn 1965: 9) at the time. The celebration of the Baroque in the early twentieth century in both academic and more popular work, which Benjamin identifies early on in the Tragic Drama book as a ‘sentimental [but] nevertheless positive tendency’ (54), helps explain how it was possible for him to have considered it a legitimate object of study in the first place—even as the narratives into which it was sutured by virtue of such endorsements also gave him pause.

[10]  As opaque as the first twenty pages of the Tragic Drama book are—Benjamin himself was in all likelihood referring to them when he wrote to Scholem on 19 February, 1925 that parts of the Epistemo-Critical Prologue were ‘an outrageous Chutzpa’ (Benjamin 1993: I, 372)—they were not the reason for the recommendation by university personnel in Frankfurt that Benjamin withdraw it from consideration as his Habilitation, or thesis, the acceptance of which would have permitted him to offer university lectures. These pages were not handed in with the rest of the study; rather, they appeared only later in the version of the book published in 1928. Without them, the Tragic Drama book begins, in the section identified by the running header at the top of the page, ‘The Dismissal and Misunderstanding of Baroque Tragedy’ (‘Barocktragödie’), with an old-fashioned, or at least conventional, overview of the ‘previous history of the German literary Baroque’ (48). The strategic (mis)use of the term ‘tragedy’ in the header to explain existing misinterpretations of what Benjamin insists is not Renaissance-like ‘tragedy’, but, rather, Baroque ‘tragic drama’ (‘Trauerspiel’), points to one of the main targets of his complaints about prior scholarship writ large, namely its failure to differentiate between the imitative culture of the Renaissance, with its typological beholdenness to ancient tragedy, and the ‘new’ forms of Baroque ‘Trauerspiel’. While Benjamin may have sought later to distance himself from the tribe of academics who chose not to accept him, the methodological and theoretical issues which he engages, not only in these more traditional, or ‘profane’ (Hanssen 1998: 45) parts of the Prologue, but also in the apparently more unorthodox opening pages that he added later, suggest that both sections may be read as dialoguing with the most important debates about the Baroque circulating among scholars at the time.

[11] Benjamin’s more or less workmanly overview of recent scholarship in the final section of the Epistemo-Critical Prologue begins by noting the considerable barriers erected already in the grand narratives of nineteenth-century German literary history to understanding the period of the Baroque and its plays. Without going into detail, he reports, for example, the suspicion on the part of the proto-Romantic and nationalist ‘philologists of the school of Grimm and Lachmann’ of the dramatic texts authored by the ‘educated bureaucrat[tic]’ class to which the German Baroque authors and playwrights (Martin Opitz, Andreas Gryphius, and Daniel Caspar von Lohenstein, among others) belonged, texts deemed by these mid-to-late nineteenth century scholars to not have been sufficiently devoted to excavating the achievements of the German Volk to be the models for a coming German nation (48). Because ‘Baroque drama’ was interested in neither ‘German legend’ nor ‘German history’, Benjamin writes, it was necessarily at odds with this era and kind of work (49), whose major charge Herbert Jaumann has subsequently described as having been to call for a ‘pious and piety-provoking’ reading of the tradition of German literature (227). It was these literary historians whose practices blocked an ‘objective appreciation’ of the Baroque (51), he writes, since they saw it as the primary duty of the ‘German Poet’ to ‘administer’ (‘verwalten’) the nation’s indigenous ‘cultural capital’ (Fohrmann 1991: 586). By definition, neither the highly complex and learned texts of the Baroque nor their non-‘völkisch’ and cosmopolitan authors could rise to this task. It is only ironic, then, that at the end of the chapter Benjamin notes in defence of the Baroque ‘men of letters’ (55) that they, unlike their modern counterparts, were in fact highly successful servants of the state. Indeed, the ‘literature in Germany in the seventeenth century’ was central to the more or less patriotic ‘rebirth’ of the ‘nation’ (55-6), even if no such ‘nation’ existed at the time. In spite of his dismissal of the ‘[o]lder research’, the rhetoric that emerges in Benjamin’s comments on the Baroque here thus seems to characterize the period as a kind of substitute Renaissance in spite of itself, especially in terms of its place of pride in a nascent economy of national culture.

[12]  Nevertheless, it is precisely the more recent wave of apologetic scholarship about the Baroque with which Benjamin would do battle in the Prologue, first of all because its arguments about the ‘Aristotelianization’ of dramatic form fall back into a critical vocabulary associated with the historical Renaissance proper; the plays of the age that followed it become evidence of a ‘distort[ed]’, un-modern, and ‘incompetent renaissance of tragedy’ (50) as a result. Moreover, explicitly defending the Baroque as an extension of the Renaissance in this way, as several scholars had done, ultimately involved the German literary tradition in what Benjamin identifies as a narrative of period ‘necessity’ (‘Notwendigkeit’) (52-3) not unrelated to the problematic ‘typological’ model that Lupton describes. Representative of these two kinds of damaging literary historical and literary critical trends are, for Benjamin, Seneca and German Renaissance Drama (1907) by the well-known Germanist Paul Stachel (1880-1919), which was one of the first close studies of the texts of the Silesian playwrights that are in fact the focus of Benjamin’s book, and the much more recent German Baroque Poetry: Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo (1924), by Herbert Cysarz (1896-1985) who, a specialist on the Baroque and a soon-to-be-goose-stepping member of National Socialist academe (see Becher), should be seen as Benjamin’s perverse doppelgänger. (In spite of his disagreements with Cysarz in the Prologue, Benjamin goes on to cite the former’s 1924 book on the Baroque—that was ironically his (Cysarz’s) successful Habiliation—over and over again in the Tragic Drama book.)

[13]  Stachel’s and Cysarz’s books bracket the decades during which the field of Baroque Studies was in its ‘golden years’. Even though Benjamin dismisses them together here (50-3), the two scholars’ approaches to the Baroque were nevertheless as methodologically different from one another as were their authors. Parts of Stachel’s book had in fact been written in 1904 as his doctoral dissertation in Berlin under Erich Schmidt (1853-1913), master of the old-style philology that Benjamin condemned (see Höppner 1998). By contrast, twenty years later, Cysarz had just completed his doctoral work in Vienna under the guidance of Walter Brecht, who was later to serve as the liaison between Benjamin and Hugo von Hofmannsthal in arranging for Hofmannsthal to publish the third section of the second chapter of the tragic drama book in Hofmannsthal’s New German Essays (Neue Deutsche Beiträge) in 1927. What Stachel and Cysarz shared is nevertheless clear from the titles of their books, namely, a belief that the best defence of the texts of the Baroque was a good offence. Their common weapon was precisely the one that Benjamin rejects, namely the association of the German Baroque with the Renaissance within a national frame.

[14]  Stachel’s Seneca and German Renaissance Drama performs this supersessionist move the most overtly by offering as a more or less backhanded defence of the drama of the German Baroque the claim that it belongs to and participates in a continuous lineage of Senecan tragedy from the plays of the Roman master through the French and Dutch Humanist school drama of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This genealogical scenario is the familiar one that animates what we might actually want to consider the fundamentally counter-figural (and thus less than energizing) narratives of the vernacular Renaissances in general, which found legitimacy in the work of the Moderns only as the by-product of their dependency on the Ancients. While Stachel must in some sense apologize that it is the ‘unnatural monster’ (2) of Seneca whose work is the decisive factor in linking the Germans to the past in this way, his opening statement in fact claims that the Germans thereby achieved a kind of ‘modern’ legitimacy in the same way as prior critics had shown Elizabethan as well as French and Dutch drama to have done, namely, by demonstrating their ‘Renaissance’ side as a matter of structural indebtedness. Indeed, the more the German tragic dramas can be said to resemble the plays not just of Seneca and Sophocles, for example, but also of Shakespeare, Vondel, Corneille, and Jean de Mairet, the more legitimately ‘Renaissance’ they become. Although ‘latecomers’ to the imitator party, so to speak, the Germans thus acquire stature in this argument not merely by mimicking the Ancients, but also by joining the ranks of prior inheritor cultures. To seal this typological deal, Stachel invokes the example of Martin Opitz who, as author of the first vernacular poetics in German (1624), is said to have brought ‘the classicistic Renaissance’ to Germany with his translation of Seneca’s The Trojan Women into German in 1636. Here, ‘all that is Roman’ is ‘teutonified’ (‘germanisiert’), according to Stachel, and ‘the ancient world view replaced by the modern’ (187). The designation of Opitz as both ‘classicistic’ and ‘modern’ reveals the paradoxically progressivist underpinnings of his Baroque-as-Renaissance dependency theory. It is thus that Stachel quite logically (although Benjamin claims mistakenly) uses the term ‘tragedy’ (rather than ‘tragic drama’, or Trauerspiel) to refer to the individual German plays; his closing arguments describe Andreas Gryphius’s creation of a specifically German ‘tragic form’ (274), for example, and Daniel Caspar von Lohenstein’s plays as contributions to the tradition of ‘German tragedy of the seventeenth century’ (324) as well. This collapsing of ‘tragic drama’ into ‘tragedy’ is the critical narrative in which Benjamin seeks to intervene by mercilessly critiquing it, both here in the Prologue and in the first section of Chapter Two of the Tragic Drama book, ‘Tragedy and Trauerspiel’, where he develops a methodology that relies on the work of scholars such as Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff and Kurt Latte to help him keep ancient tragedy and the ‘modern’ tragic drama firmly apart. The fact that Benjamin’s argument in Chapter Two can be read in two ways, as an interruption of the Baroque-as-Renaissance construction, to be sure, but also as a supersessional narrative of its own, such that the Baroque tragic drama can become the ‘origin’ of what Benjamin calls the ‘non-renaissance’ (59) of ‘modern German drama’ (60), shows how very hard it was to break free of the ideology of ‘progress’ once a specific national literature became involved.

[15]  Like Stachel’s, Herbert Cysarz’s engagement with the Baroque is his 1924 German Baroque Poetry: Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo aims to redeem the period in the face of its earlier detractors. Cysarz calls Wilhelm Scherer’s famously dismissive rendering of the Baroque in the late nineteenth century a ‘caricature’ of the period in an earlier essay that became part of his book (1923: 243) and a ‘perfidious distortion’ in the book Benjamin cites (1924: 20, n.3). Even though he is committed more explicitly than Stachel to defining the Baroque as its own period, as an ‘organic unity’ (20), Cysarz does so by deploying tropes about the Baroque as Renaissance similar to the earlier scholar’s and thus earns Benjamin’s disdain just as Stachel did. ‘The Baroque is our modern literature’s first struggle with antiquity’, Cysarz writes (1923: 245); elsewhere, it is ‘an imitation of antiquity’ (247), ‘a systematic imitation of ancient linguistic art’ (40), and a ‘chain of receptions’ (1924: 29) by poets who ‘obediently go to the schools of Romance literatures and the Ancients’ (7). Paradoxically, such claims are both overtly figural and anti-progressivist at one and the same time. Like all other ‘Renaissance literatures’, the German Baroque seeks only the ‘imitation and trumping of the forms of antiquity’ (1924: 95); yet, precisely in these terms, it can only fail to measure up. Indeed, the German Baroque is so Renaissance-like that it refuses ‘originality at all costs’ (128). In the end, Cysarz argues, even the often desperate attempts of the German poets of the seventeenth century to get beyond their ‘antiquifying’ (50, 75, 129, 153, 165) and imitative work must remain ‘unsuccessful’ (6); their ‘powerlessness’ (296) dooms them to stasis, he laments. – It would be difficult to characterize this way of ‘redeeming’ the German Baroque as anything other than the singularly ‘negative valorization’ of a failed ‘pseudo-Renaissance’ that Cysarz in fact admits that his assessment is (292).

[16]  Ironically, it may well have been Cysarz’s interest in defining the properties of the Baroque in the ‘sphere of German linguistic art’ (1924: 14) in particular (properties that he claims derived from a German ‘religious, national, and literary foundation’, 51, and that Benjamin in fact himself goes on to privilege later in the Tragic Drama book) that led him (Cysarz) to introduce what is ultimately the progressivist stylistic and literary-historical logic to which Benjamin takes most exception at the end of the Epistemo-Critical Prologue. According to Benjamin, Cysarz sees the works of the Baroque merely as a ‘preliminary stage’ (Benjamin 1977: 52) in the story of German literature. For Benjamin, attempting to define the role of the Baroque as ‘preparatory’ (1924: 6) in this way by claiming that it had only a transitional role to play in the ‘rebirth’ of the German literary tradition that culminated in Weimar Classicism, reveals where Cysarz’s Renaissance really lies. For Cysarz, there is a nearly direct line of continuity, that is, between a quasi-Burckhardtian celebration of the individual in the Renaissance (1924: 5, n.1) and the ‘individualism of the classical era’ (35 and 209). The logical result of claims such as these is that the seventeenth-century German Baroque can in fact not be a Renaissance, but remains, rather, only a “proto” and “pseudo” form thereof (19, 21, 40, 274), with the final successful ‘wedding’ of the German tradition with antiquity occurring only later, ‘toward the end of the eighteenth century’ (291), in the works of the period that he goes on to call the German ‘High Renaissance’ by Goethe and Schiller. Seen in this way, Cysarz’s Baroque is caught up in the same progressivist logic as the Renaissance proper and can thus function only as a ‘means’ to a ‘modernizing’ end, Benjamin writes (52). Benjamin had commented at length and somewhat condescendingly to Scholem that, as useful as he found some parts of the book by Cysarz as a ‘rising Viennese academic’, its confused logic in fact revealed that its author had succumbed to ‘the vertiginous attraction’ of the antithetical period of the Baroque itself (Benjamin 1993: I, 354). Cysarz’s indecisiveness about which ‘Renaissance’ to measure the Baroque against—the historical or the Weimar classical—is a case in point. With Weimar Classicism functioning as the only authentic promoter of ‘Renaissance ways’ (1924: 269), according to Cysarz, the Baroque is in any case demoted to being a literary-historical and stylistic second-class citizen. The German tradition writ large is nevertheless redeemed, destined as it is by ‘necessity’ to achieve grander heights.

[17]  It is Cysarz’s classicizing logic and narrative of national necessity that are Benjamin’s explicit target, both here in the Epistemo-Critical Prologue and in the second chapter of the Tragic Drama book, where he dismisses this kind of attempt to ‘redeem’ the Baroque as no more than ‘apologetic excuse[s]’ (53) for the period as ‘a necessary transitional stage’ (60) on the way to Weimar glory. It is only ironic, then, that the overall argument in Cysarz’s German Baroque Poetry for the essentially Lutheran origins and nature of a northern Baroque (1924: 45), and the Viennese scholar’s insistence on ‘a deeply religious Lutheran spirituality’ as the foundation of the ‘aesthetic’ achievements of the period (232, note 1), seem to have escaped Benjamin’s attention. Cysarz’s argument in fact parallels Baroque scholar Fritz Strich’s in his (Strich’s) article, ‘Renaissance and Reformation’, which had appeared in 1923 just several months after Cysarz’s initial essay on the Baroque in the same journal. Benjamin knew and cites Strich’s work throughout the Tragic Drama book. More importantly, Benjamin himself uses multiple references to the work of Aby Warburg and the so-called Warburg School to explain the rootedness of the allegorical nature of Baroque drama in specifically Lutheran sixteenth-century traditions later in the Tragic Drama book in Chapter Three, ‘Allegory and Trauerspiel’. In both cases, the possibility of a German ‘Renaissance’ during both the Reformation and the Baroque era too depends heavily on Lutheran—and thus German (rather than Reformed Swiss or French)—Protestantism. Memories of the recent and highly ideological quadricentennial jubilee of Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses in 1517 at the height of the war may have helped this narrative along. (On the 1917 celebrations of Lutheranism, see Newman 2009.) In any case, what such claims make clear is that fleeing absorption into the progressivist narrative of an Italianate or Romance Renaissance did not protect Benjamin (and others) from finding in the Baroque a specifically national form of ‘rebirth’.

III. Baroque Legacies
[18]  It might seem quite ‘baroque’—in the sense of highly distorted or convoluted—to suggest that Benjamin’s version of the period found a further and much more decisively nationalist afterlife in Nazi-era scholarship. The labyrinth of direct and indirect citations of Benjamin’s Tragic Drama book in post-1933, Party-sponsored texts nevertheless reveals the uncomfortable truth that there seems to have been something quite acceptable to at least some National Socialist scholars in Benjamin’s thought, which, like much intellectual labor from the late 1920s through the early 40s in German Literary Studies (Germanistik) in general and in German Baroque Literary Studies in particular, had its origins in the late nineteenth century and post-World War I disciplinary debates that I have traced here (see Newman 2007). That Benjamin’s ideas about the Baroque are present in these texts at some important methodological and ideological as well as semantic levels serves as an illustration of what Wilhelm Voßkamp, building on the important work of Hans-Harald Müller, has designated as precisely the absence of a ‘break in continuity’ between studies of the Baroque of this earlier period and those of the Nazi years. Voßkamp argues that while some of the ‘institutional assumptions’ of German Literary Studies of course changed after 1933 (699), certain methodological and ‘theoretical academic’ premises did not (702). The discovery in post-1933 Nazi scholarship on the Baroque of both Benjamin’s work and of ideas that it shared with work on the Baroque from the teens and the 20s confirms Voßkamp’s point, which is indirectly also Benjamin’s own in his definition of ‘origin’ as a combination of pre- and post-histories caught in the complex ‘edd[ies]’ of history (1977: 45). The Nazi contributions to Baroque Studies in which his work appears testify to some of the most extreme ends to which national periodization schemas can be put. Benjamin was perhaps wise to warn us that ‘[w]hen the idea absorbs a sequence of historical formulations’, it need not be understood as ‘do[ing] so…in order to construct a unity out of them’ (46). As we consider the fate of period studies when they are associated with place, we would do well to remember his words.

University of California at Irvine


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Nuremberg and the Topographies of Expectation

Nuremberg and the Topographies of Expectation

Jeffrey Chipps Smith

[1]  The history of the history of Renaissance art is and will remain a messy affair. Diverse narratives compete for audiences and authority. Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of Famous Artists, published in 1550 and re-issued in an expanded edition in 1568, provided a methodological model that prevailed for centuries. His accounts weave biographical anecdotes and observations about specific works into a broader historical fabric, one in which art and certain artists ascend over time toward ever greater perfection. Subsequent Northern European biographers of artists, notably Karel van Mander (1604) and Joachim von Sandrart (1675), adopted Vasari’s monographic approach for their own highly influential histories. In contrast with these celebrations of the individual master, civic artistic identity is a topic only rarely written about substantively before the nineteenth century. When and how did certain cities consciously cultivate their reputations as prominent artistic centres during the early modern era? Beyond obvious economic self-interest, some towns valued their artistic prestige. In the case of Nuremberg, like many German cities, local awareness came gradually and was articulated rather haphazardly in images and texts. Nuremberg’s artistic fame during the Renaissance has proved enduring, indeed mythic, even centuries later.

[2]  In this essay I shall address what I refer to as Nuremberg’s topographies of expectation, specifically the role that art and writing about art had in establishing a positive civic portrait. The German term Kunsttopographie means a descriptive inventory of the art of a town or region. In cartography, a topographic map graphically charts the physical characteristics of place. Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann has succinctly defined topography as ‘a body or object of knowledge, and […] the way it is ordered’ (Kaufmann 2004: 20-22).

[3]  One such ordering occurs in Friedrich Wanderer’s portrayal of Nuremberg’s most renowned late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth century artists (Figure 1), part of a series of famous Nurembergers painted for the Rathaus in 1901 (Götz 1981: 173-77; Mende 2000: 123; Maué and others 2002: no. 2; Smith 2002: 36). From left to right are Adam Kraft, Veit Hirsvogel the glazier, Veit Stoss, Michael Wolgemut, Peter Vischer the Elder, Albrecht Dürer, Hans von Kulmbach, Johann Neudörfer, Nikolaus Glockendon, Anton Koberger with a press assistant, and Augustin Hirsvogel (Smith 1983; Cat. New York 1986). Wanderer selected, excluded, and arranged artists from this local pantheon. Personally, I would have added Peter Flötner and Georg Pencz.

Figure 1. Friedrich Wanderer, Famous Nuremberg Artists of Dürer’s Time. Painting, c. 1901, Museen der Stadt Nürnberg (photo: museum)

[4]  Not surprisingly, Dürer stands in the center, and, as we shall see later, Dürer becomes the embodiment of Nuremberg’s art already in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In good hierarchical fashion, Wanderer depicts him taller and more prominently placed than his peers. Dürer’s elegant attire and bright red hat stand in marked contrast with Peter Vischer’s leather apron and dull brown cap. Neither Dürer nor Vischer, who both enjoyed great fame throughout the nineteenth century, needs to be linked with a specific work of art because their physical features were well known. In the eyes of Wanderer and his contemporaries, Dürer and Vischer represented the summit, or the cartographic highpoint in this metaphorical topography, of Nuremberg’s artistic golden age. By the twentieth century, the period around 1500 came to be labeled the Dürerzeit. It is a convenient, if highly limiting, term.

[5]  Today we are familiar with, if sometimes critical of, such labels. The shaping of Nuremberg’s fame as a city and the canonization of certain of its artists, however, are the results of a long process of self-definition. Using just a few examples, I wish to consider three topics: civic visual identity, civic artistic identity, and, briefly, civic historical identity. Each informs the topographies of expectation that culminate in images such as Wanderer’s paintings and more recent works.

Civic Visual Identity
[6]  In 1493, Michael Wolgemut, Dürer’s teacher, and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff portrayed Nuremberg in a two-page woodcut (Figure 2) in Hartmann Schedel’s Liber Chronicarum, better known as the Nuremberg Chronicle (Smith 2008a).

Figure 2. Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, View of Nuremberg. Woodcut in Hartmann Schedel, Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg Chronicle) (Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1493), folios 99v-100r. Museen der Stadt Nürnberg (photo: museum)

This, the earliest published view of the city, shows a densely built town ringed by impressive fortified walls and watchtowers. The imperial castle and civic towers dominate the northern ridge. The River Pegnitz bisects the town into the northern parish of St. Sebaldus and the southern parish of St. Lorenz. The spires of these churches, proudly labeled here, soar above the rooftops of other religious establishments, stone houses, and public buildings. This print conveys more than just Nuremberg’s prosperity and security. The Frauentor, one of the main gates, is painted with the imperial double-headed eagle. This identifies Nuremberg as an imperial free city. In exchange for supporting and funding the Holy Roman emperor, Nuremberg enjoyed a special legal status that permitted its government much greater local autonomy and political independence than in most German cities. Since the proclamation of the Golden Bull in 1356, newly elected emperors were obligated to hold their first diet or assembly in Nuremberg. The city often functioned as the de facto capital in an age where there was not yet a permanent imperial residence. In the foreground, a peddler passes three crosses and, a few paces ahead, a stone monument with a crucifixion. Since 1423-24, Nuremberg had served as the official guardian of the imperial relics and regalia, which included the lance that pierced Christ’s side and a piece of the True Cross. The woodcut proudly alludes to these holy relics. For a contemporary viewer, Nuremberg is portrayed as prosperous, pious, and politically well-connected.

[7] This civic consciousness and image construction extend to Schedel’s text, which stresses many of the same features. He locates his section on Nuremberg at the beginning of the Sixth Age of the World (folios 95-258), the Christian era that starts with Christ’s birth (Kugler 2000). Schedel invents a fictive Roman origin for Nuremberg alongside his accounts of Regensburg (folios 97v-98) and Vienna (folios 98v-99), two cities actually established by the Romans. In his text (folio 100v), Schedel erroneously traces the name Nuremberg (Neroberg or Norica) to Emperor Tiberius Claudius Nero (r. 14-37 C.E.). In actuality, Nuremberg was a relatively new city; the oldest reference to it dates about 1050. Artists and author alike used this highly original and widely-circulated publication to portray Nuremberg most flatteringly.

[8] The city council soon embraced Wolgemut and Pleydenwurff’s portrait of Nuremberg for its own use. In 1483 Nuremberg was the first German town to rewrite its legal code to be based upon Roman law. The frontispiece of the published text, known as the Reformation, appeared a year later with a woodcut by Wolgemut depicting Nuremberg’s patron saints, Sebaldus and Lorenz, plus its triple coats of arms. When the second edition was published in 1498, Wolgemut or, more likely, a follower augmented the original design with a simplified portrait of the city (Figure 3), which derives from the woodcut in the Nuremberg Chronicle (Baxandall 1980: 7). Where armorials and saints once sufficed to identify a town, now a visual image of Nuremberg was appended. This topographic view charts both the city’s physical features and its sense of pride.

[9] The Nuremberg Chronicle’s prospect of Nuremberg visually defined the city for over a half-century. It was supplanted in 1552 by Hans Lautensack’s two monumental etchings that repre¬sent the city from the east and from the west (Figure 4). (Schmitt 1957: nos. 50-51; Shestack and Talbot 1969: no. 104; Smith 1983: nos. 163-64). Three copper plates, with a combined measurement of about 30 by 150 centimeters, were needed to print each impression. The artist rendered the city, its buildings, and its countryside with painstak¬ing precision. The inscription above the city’s coats of arms on the eastern view reads: ‘A Truthful Counterfeit [Portrait] of the Praiseworthy Imperial Town from the East [literally: against the ascent of the sun]’ (‘Warhafftige Contrafactur der Löblichen Reychstat Nuremberg gegen dem Aufgang der Sonnen. 1552’). The term contrafactur/conterfactur, or ‘counterfeit,’ used here, was then synonymous with portraiture from life (Parshall 1993; Swan 1995). Painters and sculptors who made portraits were often referred to as Conterfetters because of the realism of their art. To reassure the viewer of his absolute fidelity to nature, Lautensack includes an artist, presumably a self-portrait, diligently working under the appreciative gaze of his fellow citizens in both prints (Figure 5).

Figure 3. Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (after), Frontispiece. Woodcut in Die Reformacion der Statut und Gesetze der Stat Nüremberg (Augsburg: Johannes Schönsperger, 1498) (photo: author)

Figure 4. Hans Lautensack, View of Nuremberg from the West. Etching, 1552, Washington, National Gallery of Art. Rosenwald Collection (photo: museum)

Figure 5. Hans Lautensack, View of Nuremberg from the West, detail center. Etching, 1552, Washington, National Gallery of Art, Rosenwald Collection (photo: museum)

He is sketching outdoors or nach dem Leben to prove his scrutiny of the actual walls and buildings. A prosperous gentleman, perhaps a patrician member of the city council, tips his hat to the artist in the western view. Others, including the implied viewer a bit farther back, look on in admiration and as witnesses, as if art has opened their and our eyes to Nuremberg’s beauty for the first time.

[10] Lautensack’s pictorial encomium rivals its great literary predecessors (Schäfer 1896: 4-8; Anders 1960; Cochlaeus 1969: 74-93; Keck 1999; Gebhardt 2002; Büchert 2002; Arnold 2004). He successfully conveys the physical city of towers and walls as well as the ideological city; that is, the face that Nuremberg and its patrician government would like to be publicized. Lautensack’s intent is stated in the last two lines of the left hand inscription of the eastern view: ‘Here we have drawn the towers and walls of this city; to paint its riches was too great a task.’

[11] Who was Lautensack’s audience? Civic records indicate that Lautensack dedicated his prints to the Nuremberg council (Schmitt 1957: 50 and docs. nos. xxxiv-xxxv). They received numerous copies of each print and likely the etched plates. On March 21, 1552, the council rewarded Lautensack in return with a gift of 50 gulden, or roughly equivalent to the annual salary of a printer. The many extant examples of both the eastern and the western views testify to the popularity of Lautensack’s prints. Examples, including several impressions still in the city’s possession, were probably displayed in the Rathaus and kept in the homes of the city council members. Others likely were given to the emperor and the city’s allies. Lautensack’s peaceful portrayal of Nuremberg was made less than two months before the outbreak of the devastating Margrave’s War of 1552-54, which despoiled the countryside and badly damaged the city’s economy. Nevertheless, it was widely copied and served as the basis for most city views well into the seventeenth century. The visual images matched Nuremberg’s desired public face or identity (Smith 2008a).

Civic Artistic identity
[12] Johann Neudörfer, seen at the rear of Wanderer’s painting (Figure 1), was not strictly an artist. Rather, he was a noted teacher of arithmetic, geometry, and calligraphy. In Nicolas Neufchâtel’s portrait of Neudörfer (Figure 6), commissioned by the Nuremberg council in 1561, he explains the properties of a dodecahedron to one of his pupils (Löcher 1997: 328-30).

Figure 6. Nicolas Neufchâtel, Portrait of Johann Neudörfer and a Pupil. Painting, 1561, Munich, Bayerisches Staatsgemäldesammlungen on loan to the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg (photo: Germanisches Nationalmuseum)

At least once he collaborated with Dürer who lived nearby and moved within the same intellectual circles. Neudörfer penned the inscriptions at the bottom of the Four Apostles panels, now in Munich (Alte Pinakothek) (Goldberg, Heimberg, and Schawe 1998: no. 14). In 1547 Neudörfer authored the Nachrichten von Künstlern und Werkleuten (Account of Artists and Workmen) (Neudörfer 1875; Kapr 1956: 7-38). His manuscript contains seventy-nine biographies of Nuremberg’s artists and artisans. Although the text predates Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists by three years, it was not published fully until the nineteenth century. The manuscript must have been well known since its contents were mined by Joachim von Sandrart, writing in 1675, and other scholars especially from 1730 onward. In the dedication to Georg Römer, Neudörfer recalls a conversation that he had had with this patrician merchant a few days earlier while walking through Nuremberg’s main market (Neudörfer 1875: 1). Both men marveled over the remarkable number of highly skilled artisans working in so many different crafts who either currently or recently lived in Nuremberg. Neudörfer concludes that God endowed their praiseworthy city with more ‘Künstlern und kunstverständigen Leuten’ than any other town.

[13] This conversation inspired Neudörfer to compose his lives over the course of the next eight days, or so he claims. With this text, he initiates a comprehensive history of Nuremberg’s art and artists. Here is the first broad record of the city’s – indeed of any Germany city’s – artistic identity. Neudörfer’s Nachrichten lacks the master narrative and theoretical apparatus of Vasari’s Lives. Yet he provides invaluable information about many masters who would otherwise be unknown to us today. Neudörfer’s anecdotes chronicle the web of personal associations linking many of the artists with each other. For example, he is the best source for Hans Frey, Dürer’s father-in-law who was a bronzesmith noted for his elaborate table fountains and, we are told, his harp-playing skills (Neudörfer 1875: 117-18; Schoch 2008: no. 37).

[14] Neudörfer arranged his lives according to profession rather than chronology or any hierarchy of fame. Thus he does not herald anyone as the Urmeister or founder of Nuremberg’s artistic tradition in the way that van Mander will credit the van Eycks. Neudörfer includes only recent or current masters rather than any noted artisans from earlier in the fifteenth century. With a few exceptions, the ordering proceeds from master masons to brass and bronze smiths, gun and armor makers, locksmiths, sculptors, goldsmiths, painters, illuminators, glaziers, wood¬block cutters, makers of organs and precision instruments, publishers, eyeglass makers, and paper makers, among others. The next to last entry is the famed shoemaker, poet, and Meistersinger Hans Sachs.

[15] Let us consider Neudörfer’s remarks about Peter Vischer the Elder and Dürer, the two central protagonists in Wanderer’s picture. To paraphrase Neudörfer, he tells his readers that Vischer had a friendly personality and was most knowledgeable in the natural [creative?] arts (Neudörfer 1875: 21-30). It was rare that visiting princes and powerful people did not stop by his workshop because of his fame as a brass caster. He remarks that Vischer’s art is best seen in the Shrine of St. Sebaldus (Figure 7), which he made with his five sons between c. 1488 and its formal placement in the church on July 19, 1519.

Figure 7. Peter Vischer the Elder and Workshop, Shrine of St. Sebaldus. Cast brass, completed in 1519, Nuremberg, St. Sebaldus Church (photo: author)

Figure 8. Peter Vischer the Elder and Workshop, Self-Portrait of Peter Vischer the Elder, detail of the Shrine of St. Sebaldus. Cast brass, completed in 1519, Nuremberg, St. Sebaldus Church (photo: author)

Neudörfer informs us that Vischer portrayed himself as the apron-clad figure standing at the east end of the shrine (Figure 8; Pilz 1970: 54, 61). This statue originally held a hammer and chisel.  According to Neudörfer, Peter the Elder’s sons and their families all lived with him. His own work could be viewed in the cast fountain in the Herren Schiessgraben. Most of his castings, however, are found in Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, or were made for electors and princes throughout the Holy Roman Empire (Hauschke 2006). He notes that Vischer’s monumental brass grille that first belonged to the Fuggers of Augsburg was then displayed in the Nuremberg Rathaus (Cat. New York 1986: no. 199).

[16] Neudörfer’s comments on Dürer are somewhat longer and begin with information about his parents (Neudörfer 1875: 132-33). Again to paraphrase Neudörfer, he notes that Albrecht the Elder originally planned to apprentice his thirteen year-old son with Martin Schongauer. With the latter’s death, the young Dürer entered Michael Wolgemut’s shop in 1486. [In actuality, Schongauer died in 1491.] After three years, he then traveled through Germany to Colmar and Basel where Schongauer’s four brothers [each correctly named] proved helpful. For his art Dürer wandered widely making portraits of people, landscapes, and cities. He painted a pretty picture [the Feast of the Rose Garlands, now Národní Galerie in Prague] in Venice. In Antwerp he was the honoured guest of 100 painters. For Emperor Maximilian, who gave him 100 gulden yearly, Dürer made the Triumphal Arch, the Theuerdank, and many other figures and paintings. The king of England honoured him highly, as did the electors and princes whom he portrayed. The Nuremberg Rat appointed him to the Greater Council in 1509 where his speech was so wise and lovely that he became a Ratsfreund. He painted an All Saints panel [the Adoration of the Holy Trinity Altarpiece, now divided between Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum) and Nuremberg (Germanisches Nationalmuseum)] and, to honour the lords of the council, four life-size images [the Four Apostles in Munich (Alte Pinakothek)] now in the Upper Regimentsstube. These show the sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic. Neudörfer claims he penned the biblical inscriptions at the bottom of this painting (Neudörfer 1875: 158-59). The books that Dürer made in 1515 [sic – 1525] on measurement and in 1528 on human proportions as well as his prints bring his art before our eyes. Although there is a great quantity of his prints, one can scarcely find any for less than 9 florins. In 1494 Dürer came back home and in the same year married Agnes, Hans Frey’s daughter. He died on April 6, 1528. His paintings and prints carry his AD sign.

[17] Most of the above comments about Vischer and Dürer are familiar today and usually can be corroborated from other sources. Only Neudörfer’s reference to the honour paid to Dürer by the king of England, presumably Henry VIII, cannot be verified. In the winter of 1523 the artist did paint the portrait of Henry Parker, Lord Morley and then the chancellor of England, when he stopped in Nuremberg (Anzelewsky 1991: no. 171 Z and fig. 148). Many of these biographical statements were introduced into the literature for the first time by Neudörfer, who was personally acquainted with most of the artists about whom he wrote. Sometimes a few statements are incorrect, as in the case about the plan to send the teenage Albrecht to study with Schongauer. His remarks are based on the prevailing oral history and, in this instance, perhaps upon claims made by Dürer himself. In the journal of his trip to the Netherlands in 1520-21, Dürer noted that on August 5, 1520, two days after arriving in Antwerp, the local painters held an elaborate banquet in his honour at their guild house. ‘And as I was being led to the table the company stood on both sides as if they were leading some great lord.’ (Rupprich 1956-69: vol. 1: 151; Goris and Marlier 1971: 57-58). Nowhere in his lengthy remarks about this evening did Dürer specify the number of painters present. So when Neudörfer claims there were 100 painters at the meal he is likely relying on his conversations with Dürer or with one of their mutual friends or he invented a nice round number.

[18] Neudörfer stresses certain common themes, such as the great knowledge and positive personalities of Vischer and Dürer; the quality of their art including the listing of specific works that best reveal their skills; the many honours and the fame that both enjoyed; the powerful patrons for whom they worked; and, critically, the international distribution of or demand for their art. These traits will characterize much of the art historical writings about Dürer and Vischer from the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries.

[19] Neudörfer first identifies the standing figure on the eastern end of the Sebaldus Shrine as a self-portrait of Vischer just as he informs his readers that the stone sculptor Adam Kraft carved himself kneeling beneath the sacrament house in the Lorenzkirche. He does not mention any of Dürer’s self-portraits but he stresses the many monogrammed paintings and prints. Neudörfer considers the reader’s ability to recognize their respective works to be important. In addition to his monogram, Dürer occasionally signed his major creations with ‘Albrecht Dürer Noricus’ (or of Nuremberg) beginning with the Adam and Eve engraving of 1504 and quite prominently in the All Saints Altarpiece mentioned by Neudörfer. While Dürer may have had various personal and humanistic motivations for identifying himself with his native city, he also consciously linked himself with Nuremberg’s international reputation for craft of the highest material and artistic quality (Eser 2002). Peter Vischer and his sons adopted a similar form of signature (‘PETRI FISCHERS NORMBERGE’) in several of their most consequential creations including the epitaph of Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg (1525), today in Aschaffenburg’s Stiftskirche (Merkel 2004: 22, 75, figs. 1 and 35).

[20] Although Neudörfer does not present a master narrative progressing chronologically, his text stresses Nuremberg as an artistic center of international significance. It is a city whose present greatness can be credited partially to the vibrancy of its art and artists. Repeatedly he extols the city’s ability to attract highly talented artists from other distant towns and countries, such as goldsmiths Albrecht Dürer the Elder from Hungary or Wenzel Jamnitzer from Vienna (Neudörfer 1875: 126, 132). In some respects, his biographies stand as flesh and blood counterparts to the visual encomium of the physical city portrayed in Lautensack’s etchings.

[21] Neufchâtel’s painted portrait of Neudörfer was commissioned by the city council for the Rathaus. The inscription on its frame, which is original, celebrates Neudörfer’s talents as a teacher, his knowledge, his incomparable industry, and his European-wide fame. It refers to him as a ‘great ornament’ of Nuremberg (‘magnum ornamentum patriae, Reipublicae Norimbergensis’). The council’s honoring of Neudörfer, just like his own praise for Nuremberg’s artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, typifies a broader local civic identity. Nuremberg’s reputation, its economy, and its recent history are inextricably linked with its fame as the preeminent German artistic center. In 1471 the astronomer Johannes Regiomontanus wrote to Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary and Bohemia, explaining why he moved to Nuremberg (Maué and others 2002: 11 and 13). He states that the city was the ‘quasi centrum Europae.’ Here he could find the highly skilled artists to construct his precision scientific instruments and publishers to print his writings. Nuremberg had long enjoyed its lofty summit atop the landscape of artistic centers of the Holy Roman Empire. By the mid-sixteenth century, the city government identified with and promoted Nuremberg’s artistic reputation.

[22] One manifestation of the emergence of Nuremberg’s civic artistic identity may be observed in the creation, albeit somewhat haphazardly, of the town’s art collection in the Rathaus. A thorough discussion of this is beyond the scope of the present paper and has been dealt with by others (Schwemmer 1949: 97-103; Christensen 1965: 140-72; Kubach-Reutter 2002). By the mid-sixteenth century, the city possessed Dürer’s Self-Portrait of 1500, Emperors Charlemagne and Sigismund panels, and Four Apostles, among other pictures (Anzelewsky 1991: nos. 66, 123-24, 183-84: Goldberg, Heimberg, and Schawe 1998: nos. 6 and 14). In 1538 Georg Pencz, who in 1532 was appointed the official city painter, was paid by the council to gild the frame of Dürer’s Four Apostles. This picture and, most likely, several other Dürer paintings hung in the Regimentsstube, where the council met. Cloth covers were placed over these pictures to protect them from smoke. It is uncertain precisely when the city obtained the Self-Portrait of 1500 (Goldberg, Heimberg, and Schawe 1998: 340-41). Either this or another likeness of the artist was acquired in 1555 for 50 florins. Endres Dürer, our artist’s younger brother, died in this year, so the picture may have been purchased from his estate. When Karel van Mander visited Nuremberg in 1577, he toured the Rathaus. He remarks seeing the paintings listed above as well as a portrait of Dürer’s mother. This indicates that art in the Rathaus was accessible to guests and some visitors. Van Mander offers a detailed description and notation of the date of the Self-Portrait of 1500. Alas, he does not specify in which rooms he viewed the pictures. In 1611 the Self-Portrait hung in the upper Ratsstube, a more intimate chamber used by the city’s leaders. The Rathaus collection also included Neufchâtel’s portrait of Neudörfer, as well as paintings by Pencz and Paul Lautensack, among others, illuminated manuscripts, a city model, and large-scale prints, such as Niklas Meldemann’s Turkish Siege of Vienna in 1529 and Lautensack’s two etched city views of 1552. Most items were given by the artists to the city in hope of receiving some financial compensation in return. The majority of objects were by Nuremberg masters, though the city owned several paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder and his shop given by the Saxon electors.  Prints, manuscripts, and goldsmith works were kept in the Losungerstube or treasury, the room adjoining the Ratsstube.

Figure 9. Wenzel Jamnitzer, Merkel Table Decoration. Goldsmith work, 1549, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (photo: museum)

[23] In 1549 Wenzel Jamnitzer sold his Mother Earth (or Merkel) Table Decoration (Figure 9) to the city council (Pechstein 1974; Cat. Nuremberg 1985: no. 15). They paid him the stunningly high price of 1,230 gulden, reflecting the preciousness of the materials, plus another 80 gulden for an ornate leather case. Nuremberg had long been one of the empire’s foremost goldsmith centers. It was common practice for the council to present particularly fine goldsmith works as gifts to visiting emperors, nobles, and important guests. The blank coats of arms suggest that the council initially may have had similar plans for Jamnitzer’s table decoration. The unique form and technical virtuosity of Jamnitzer’s creation prompted the council to keep it for its own display at banquets and other ceremonial occasions. With its mimicry of nature, especially its castings in silver of grasses and flowers, the table decoration offers a microcosm – the best of both nature’s and human artistry in miniature. It serves too as an outstanding demonstration of (and advertisement for) the creative skills of Jamnitzer and other Nuremberg goldsmiths.

[24] The city’s leaders gradually recognized that the city’s buoyant artistic identity had both economic and historical significance. It is not surprising to learn that when the opportunity arose in 1600 the council purchased Neufchâtel’s Portrait of Wenzel Jamnitzer (1562-63; Geneva, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire) from the artist’s son and heir, Hans (Hauschke 2003: 127-28). The portrait hung in the council chambers until it, like many other works of art including Mother Earth, was sold in the early nineteenth century.

Civic Historical Identity
[25] Dürer becomes the face of Nuremberg, the personification of the city at its moment of greatest historical ascendancy. In 1553 Lautensack painted a view of the western skyline of Nuremberg (Figure 10; Wolfson 1992: no. 34; and Mende 2000: 157).  The exact vantage point and details differ somewhat from his far more accurate etchings of 1552 (see Figure 4). In the foreground stands Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg (‘ALBERTVS DVRERVS NORICVS’) holding a large cartellino. The portrait and sign type derive from the Adoration of the Holy Trinity Altarpiece, then in the Landauer Chapel in Nuremberg. The inscription gives his birth and death dates though the former is incorrectly written as 1472 rather than 1471. Was the painting commissioned by one of the deceased artist’s friends to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death?

[26] The pictorial formula of symbolically linking a figure or figures with a city view has religious and political precedents. In the 1540s and 1550s, the Cranach workshop in Wittenberg created several compositions in which Christ’s baptism, set before the backdrop of a German town, is watched by Lutheran reformers and princes. An anonymous woodcut, printed in 1559, shows Nuremberg and the Pegnitz River as the stage for Luther and others witnessing Christ’s baptism (Cat. Nuremberg 1979: no. 89; Smith 1983: 35, fig. 28). This signals the city’s Protestant affiliation, a position that it officially adopted in 1525. Lautensack also authored portrait etchings in which the subject is juxtaposed with a specific and personally relevant setting. For instance, Nuremberg burgomaster Hieronymus Schürstab (1554) is shown by a window with a view of a church, later labeled St. Leonhard, just southwest of Nuremberg (Smith 1983: no. 166). He served as the council’s overseer of this and, earlier, St. Peter’s, another extramural church. Thus Lautensack’s painting explicitly links Dürer with his native city. His fame bolsters that of Nuremberg.

Figure 10. Hans Lautensack, Landscape with a Portrait of Albrecht Dürer. Painting, 1553, Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover – Landesgalerie (photo: museum)

[27] In about 1601-02 Emperor Rudolf II (r. 1574-1612) commissioned an elaborate gilt-silver pitcher and basin (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) from Christoph Jamnitzer, Wenzel’s grandson (Irmscher 1999: esp. 153-54, figs. 36-38). The pitcher is decorated with Petrarch’s trionfi or triumphs linked with the six stages of life (love, chastity, death, fame, time, and eternity). Fame’s elephant-drawn chariot is set against the backdrop view of Nuremberg as seen from the west. Nine men stand beside the chariot as the embodiments of artistic fame. From left to right are portraits of Raphael, the cardinal and poet Pietro Bembo, Giambologna, Petrarch, Michelangelo, Dürer, Hans von Aachen(?), who was Rudolf’s court painter, Wenzel Jamnitzer, and Johann Neudörfer. The profile likenesses of Michelangelo and Dürer face each other as if in conversation. On the opposite side of the chariot are Julius Caesar and a few other classical rulers in keeping with Petrarch’s theme of fame being attainable through military and artistic achievements. Jamnitzer modified his source, an anonymous woodcut illustrating Sechs Triumph Francisci Petrarche, Daniel Federmann’s German translation published in Basel in 1578 (Irmscher 1999: 66-67, fig. 48). For Christoph Jamnitzer, Nuremberg, a city that nourished Dürer, Wenzel Jamnitzer, Neudörfer, and, by implication, himself, is the fitting locus or centre of artistic fame.

[28] This association of Dürer and his native city is more explicit and more publicly accessible in Wenzel Hollar’s engraved Plan of Nuremberg (c. 1657; Figure 11).

Figure 11. Wenzel Hollar, Plan of Nuremberg with a Portrait of Albrecht Dürer. Etching, c. 1657, Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum (photo: museum)

The laurel wreath-bedecked tablet is inscribed ‘Civitatis Norimbergae Vera Descriptio geometrica.’ This true description of Nuremberg includes the topography of place in the form of lines describing walls, streets, and notable buildings. The inclusion of the profile portrait of Dürer, based on Hans Schwarz’s medal of 1521, identifies Nuremberg explicitly as Dürer’s city. Hollar did not even bother to inscribe Dürer’s name since he assumed, probably correctly, that the artist’s likeness was universally recognized at least within the Holy Roman Empire. As far as I know, no other German town was so fundamentally linked with an individual, let alone an artist, at this time. Dürer stands as the embodiment of Nuremberg’s artistic patrimony. Paradoxically, the ascendancy of the historical Dürer and his links with Nuremberg occurred at a time when fewer and fewer of his original paintings remained in the city. The aggressive acquisitions of his oeuvre by Emperor Rudolf II and Maximilian I, Duke and later Elector of Bavaria (r. 1597-1651), stripped his art from several local churches and private collections, notably that of Willibald Imhoff (Hess 2002).

[29] Dürer remains the face of Nuremberg and its art. In 1628, the hundredth anniversary of Dürer’s death, his portrait appeared on the beautifully crafted silver medal by the distinguished goldsmith Hans Petzolt (Petzoldt) (Figure 12; Mende 1983: no. 65).  The likeness is based upon the medal that Dürer himself commissioned from Hans Schwarz in 1520 and cast in the following year (Mende 1983: 57-68, nos. 14-17). The obverse displays the portrait accompanied by the inscription ‘ALBERTI DURERI PICTORIS GERMANI APELLIS EFFIGIES’ (‘Portrait of Albrecht Dürer, Painter, the German Apelles’). The lengthy text on the reverse praises the artist: ‘… his bones are covered by the grave / his spirit fills the heavens / his fame appears as a triumphal chariot pulled by white horses / … the Muse of History as everyone knows does not let great men die. Born on 20 May 1471 in Nuremberg / died in the same place on 6 April 1528 at the age of 57 years / C[hristoph]. H[oeflich]. N[uremberg].’ Hoeflich, the text’s author, was a young local poet. Who commissioned this medal is not known but it is reasonable to ask whether it was ordered by the city council. Other than a brief stint in Emperor Rudolf II’s service in Prague, Petzolt worked continuously for the council throughout his career (Tebbe, Timann, and Eser, eds., 2007: vol. 1.1: 303-06). He made at least eighty cups and other goldsmith objects at its request. Most of these were presented as gifts by the council to distinguished visitors and political allies. Petzolt served also as a member of the Greater Council and, in 1611, he was named a Ratsherr. Even if the medal was commissioned by someone else, some councilors likely received examples. Dürer’s fame transcended Nuremberg yet efforts frequently were made to bind together the reputations of the artist and his city. Prior to the nineteenth century, the initiative came primarily from individuals, such as Joachim von Sandrart. In composing his Teutsche Academie der edlen Bau-, Bild- und Malerei-Künste, published in Nuremberg in 1675, von Sandrart devoted his lengthiest biography to Dürer, whom he described as the ‘painter, sculptor, engraver, and architect [Baumeister] of Nuremberg’ (Sandrart 1994: vol. 1: part II, Book III, 222-29). Drawing upon primary documents available in Nuremberg as well as the writings of Neudörfer, Vasari, and van Mander, among others, he constructed an almost superhuman textual portrait of the artist.

Figure 12. Hans Petzolt, Portrait of Albrecht Dürer. Silver with partial gilt medal, obverse and reverse, 1628, Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum (photo: museum)

Dürer was neither a sculptor nor an architect, even though he authored the Treatise on Fortifications in 1527. This mattered little to von Sandrart who fashioned the Nuremberg master into the German counterpart to Michelangelo and Bernini. His account includes testimonies to Dürer’s celebrity by Erasmus and by Willibald Pirckheimer. Other Nuremberg masters including Michael Wolgemut, Peter Vischer and his family, Peter Flötner, Veit Stoss, Veit Hirsvogel, Georg Pencz, the Beham brothers, and Virgil Solis, among others, also are prominently featured.

[30] In 1662 von Sandrart was the intellectual force behind the creation of Germany’s first art academy, a group that met in his nephew’s house in Nuremberg. In 1674 he moved permanently to Nuremberg from his estate near Eichstätt. Von Sandrart’s fascination with Dürer prompted him to purchase the Dürer and Frey family funerary plot in the St. Johannis cemetery outside of the western walls of Nuremberg. With the demise of both family lines, the plot had become public property. Only a small brass plaque placed in 1528 by Pirckheimer marked the site. Von Sandrart restored the plot and added two much longer bronze inscriptions, one in Latin and one in German, on the tomb.

Figure 13. Tomb of Albrecht Dürer (with students from the University of Texas), brass and bronze plaques, 1528 and 1681, Nuremberg St. Johannis Cemetery (photo: author)

In translation the Latin text reads, ‘The ornament of Germany is dead. / ALBERTUS DURERUS / Light of the arts, sun of the artists. / Decoration of Noris, his native town, / Painter, Graphic artist, Sculptor / Without model because omniscient, / Found worthy by foreigners who / recommended to imitate him. / Magnet of magnates, / grindstone for talents. / After one and half hundred years / no one having been equal to him / he must here repose alone. Traveler – strew flowers. / In the year of Salvation 1681 / J. De S’ (BiaÅ‚ostocki 1986: 72). Von Sandrart bequeathed the tomb to the Nuremberg academy, which the city council had transformed into a formal school for training artists in 1670-71. The members used Dürer’s tomb as a burial place for foreign artists who died in Nuremberg.

[31] Von Sandrart’s writings and his activities in Nuremberg institutionalized and further localized Dürer. He praises him as the foremost of all German and Nuremberg artists. Critically, too, he remarks that Dürer’s ‘exceptional artistic merits which provided such a wonderful guiding light to his successors would furnish enough subject matter and material for a book devoted to his works alone’ (BiaÅ‚ostocki 1986: 71). That is, Dürer becomes the supreme model for German artists to emulate. The activities of the academy certainly included discussions about Dürer as well as about the past greatness of Nuremberg as an artistic center. Finally, von Sandrart’s restoration of Dürer’s tomb created a fixed site for paying homage to the Renaissance master.

[32] By the nineteenth century, Nuremberg had fully embraced Dürer as the embodiment of its past fame. Occasionally Peter Vischer the Elder or, less often, Veit Stoss appear as sidekicks but the focus is always clearly on Dürer. Images linking artist and city together, as if some of his genius could rub off on the contemporary town and its current artists, proliferated especially during the Dürer jubilees of 1828 and 1871. Scholars have carefully analyzed the ephemeral events staged during these occasions, which included processions, plays, concerts, banquets, and countless orations (BiaÅ‚ostocki 1986: 91-143; Cat. Nuremberg 1971; Hinz 1971; Mende and Hebecker 1973; Blumenthal 2001). Contemporary artists created temporary Dürer shrines around the city, while others illustrated episodes of his life, often making distinctly Christological parallels.

[33] While these activities certainly reinforced the association between Dürer and his city for the broad public as well as for Germany’s artistic elite, many of whom participated in the 1828 gathering, I am struck by the community’s pioneering efforts at creating permanent physical sites honouring its most famous native son. Artists and art lovers traveling to Nuremberg were offered three distinct places where they could pay their respects to Dürer or perhaps to commune with his spirit: his tomb, his house, and his over-life-size memorial statue. All of these were maintained either by the city or a local arts society. Dürer’s tomb was the setting for private visits and organized events. Members of the Albrecht-Dürer-Verein (society) met at his grave annually from 1823 to 1826 (Blumenthal 2001: 18). Dürer’s death day, April 6, coincided with Easter Sunday in 1828. The jubilee participants trekked to the St. Johannis cemetery and held a sunrise celebration at the tomb. Ludwig Emil Grimm, who later made an etching of the occasion, remarked, ‘At six o’clock we were all gathered around Dürer’s grave. Large numbers of artists from all parts of Germany, arranged in picturesque groups, were united around this tomb on which had been placed a large wreath of ivy, and a solemn silence had fallen. Suddenly it was broken by the mighty sounds of tubas reverberating around us, sublime and deeply moving, as they announced the high solemnity of the hour and the day. The wind abated, the clouds parted, and the sun in all its glory rose over the old castle, illuminating the lovely churchyard and our large solemn gathering’ (BiaÅ‚ostocki 1986: 117 and fig. 47).

[34] Dürer’s house figured prominently in the jubilee events of 1828 (Figure 14).

Figure 14. Albrecht Dürer’s House by the Tiergärtnertor Gate in Nuremberg. 1420 ff. (photo: author)

In 1825 the city acquired the house in which the artist lived from 1509 until his death in 1528 (Mende 1989; Mende 1991; 11-50). The building was restored in a Gothic-revival style and rented to an art society. In anticipation of the jubilee of 1871, the house was refurbished and transferred to a new foundation, which opened it as Europe’s second(?) public museum dedicated to a single artist. The first was the Casa Buonarroti, a private museum, which was bequeathed to the city of Florence in 1858. Dürer’s house has been restored on several occasions and, after World War II, partially rebuilt. As a museum, it has long sponsored exhibitions, including shows of contemporary art that respond inventively to Dürer’s oeuvre (Mende 1980). The house functions, too, as a surviving surrogate for the deceased Dürer. Nineteenth and twentieth-century artists drew inspiration from the building. In the commemorative Stammbuch of 1828 in which German artists contributed drawings honouring Dürer, Mathias Christoph Hartmann portrayed himself and his two sons standing before a marble bust of Dürer (Mende and Hebecker 1973: no. 30 and cover illustration). A view of Dürer’s house appears just behind Hartmann as he lectures to his sons about the Renaissance master. The Scottish artist and later Dürer biographer William Bell Scott traveled to Nuremberg in 1853. Stimulated by his visit to Dürer’s house, Scott created a painting (Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland) a year later showing the Nuremberg master, brushes in hand, looking down from his balcony at the crowds passing through the Tiergärtnertor, the city gate across the square (Christian 1973: 57-58, 79; BiaÅ‚ostocki 1986: 243; Mende 1991: 30). The castle looms on the hill above. In Dürer’s Studio (Paris, Musée d’Orsay), the French painter Adolphe Charles Edouard Steinheil (1850-1908) evokes Dürer’s creative presence through his physical absence (Andrews 1973: 99-100, fig. 38 [labeled incorrectly]). The setting is a corner of a room with the artist’s worktable placed before a bay of windows. A sketch, presumably unfinished, rests on the drafting-board. The chair is pushed back and the nearby door is ajar. In this surreptitious glimpse into the Nuremberg master’s workspace, Steinheil hints that Dürer is merely on break. Since his spirit lingers, the room alone suffices to convey the locus of creativity. Recently, the Dürerhaus was re-installed to enhance the visitor’s experience of how the house might have looked and functioned during the artist’s lifetime (Grossmann and Sonnenberger 2007).

[35] Unlike the tomb and house, with their direct historic associations with Dürer, the bronze statue of the artist erected in 1840 in the Milk Market (Figure 15), which was renamed the Albrecht-Dürer-Platz, signals Nuremberg’s official efforts to commemorate him in a fitting fashion (Simson 1996: nos. 161-63; Goddard 1988: 118-19).

Figure 15. Christian Daniel Rauch, Albrecht Dürer Monument. Bronze cast by Jakob Daniel Burgschmiet, c. 1828-40, Nuremberg, Albrecht-Dürer-Platz (photo: author)

In 1826 King Ludwig I of Bavaria (r. 1825-48) proposed the idea to Nuremberg’s councilors as they planned for the Dürer-jubilee of 1828. Since Nuremberg and the rest of Franconia had become incorporated into the new kingdom of Bavaria in 1805, Ludwig’s support had both artistic and political motivations. Members of Nuremberg’s Albrecht-Dürer-Verein and the Munich Academy commissioned the noted Berlin sculptor Christian Daniel Rauch, Ludwig’s choice, to design the statue. Participants attending the jubilee witnessed the ceremonial laying of the monument’s foundation stone on April 7, 1828. Each received a bronze medal cast by Jakob Daniel Burgschmiet displaying the obverse portrait of Dürer, modeled after Petzolt’s medal, and on the reverse the Jungfrauenadler, Nuremberg’s heraldic symbol, who holds an inscription tablet (‘ZU SEINEM GEDÄCHTNISS [‘to his memory’] VI APRIL MDCCCXXVIII NÜRNBERG’) (Mende 1983: no. 78; BiaÅ‚ostocki 1986: 117). One impression of the medal was buried beneath the foundation stone. The attendees that day had to content themselves with Rauch’s scale model, the wooden mockup of the base, and various prints of the statue. The temporary base bore the text, ‘Father Dürer, give us thy blessing, that like thee we may truly cherish German art; be our guiding star until the grave!’ Because of funding problems, Burgschmiet’s bronze cast after Rauch’s full-size model was completed only in 1840. Dürer stands holding his brushes. The likeness is modeled after the artist’s self-portrait in the Adoration of the Holy Trinity Altarpiece. This was Europe’s first public memorial honouring a past artist. It predates Antwerp’s statue of Peter Paul Rubens (May 1840) and Amsterdam’s statue of Rembrandt (1847).

[36] Over the centuries Nuremberg and its officials embraced Dürer and, to a lesser degree, the rest of the pantheon of great artists celebrated in Friedrich Wanderer’s painting (Figure 1). For reasons of local pride mixed with economic opportunity, Nuremberg has long defined itself and continues to market itself as a city of art. Indeed the city is often dubbed Dürerstadt Nürnberg. Visitors stepping off the train in Nuremberg’s Hauptbahnhof in 1971, another jubilee year, were greeted by a colossal iconic portrait of Dürer (BiaÅ‚ostocki 1986: 377, fig. 152). Or in 2003, one encountered Ottmar Hörl’s 7,000 rabbits filling the Hauptmarkt in a slightly belated 500-year homage to Dürer’s Large Hare (1502).

[37] Nuremberg’s civic identity is fully allied with the fame of its artists. Knowingly and willingly, we, like our predecessors, embrace the topographies of expectation, a story of place, artists, and legacy crafted piecemeal in the late-1400s and early-1500s, and presented as a master narrative in later centuries. This canonical account of Nuremberg’s golden age has proven enduring. Unintentionally, however, it has overshadowed and largely marginalized the subsequent chapters in the city’s artistic heritage (Smith 2008b).

University of Texas at Austin



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Ficino in Aberdeen: The Continuing Problem of the Scottish Renaissance

Ficino in Aberdeen:
The Continuing Problem of the Scottish Renaissance

Jane Stevenson and Peter Davidson

[1]  It is a complicating factor in the discussion of the renaissance if the historiography of a particular kingdom denies persistently that it ever existed there at all. When we began work on this article, Professor Chris Gane, a senior colleague at the University of Aberdeen, reminded us that the standard school histories of Scotland in use in the 1960s and 1970s simply stated as acknowledged fact that Scotland did not have a renaissance. The sources of this denial are not particularly difficult to diagnose: the domination of Scottish history by lowland Presbyterian agendas lasted a surprisingly long time. Another complication is the attempt to backdate the existence of a single people called ‘Scots’ where any early-modern Scot would have recognised a tripartite division into Scoti (the modern lowlands and borders) Scoti Boreali (the territories of Aberdeenshire and Moray under Gordon dominion) and Scoti Montani (the Gaelic-speaking territories, much more extensive than now). [1] These territories, of course, were under differing degrees of Royal control, and constituted distinct culture-provinces amenable in different ways to outside influence.

[2]  The denial, or qualified acceptance, of the idea of a Scottish renaissance is an attempt on one hand to impose some kind of retrospective coherence on very diverse regions, and (on the other) to produce a narrative of ‘progress’ in which the Kirk, literacy, the Protestant work ethic and other signposts on the way to modernity supersede Catholicism and ignorance. This requires the back-dating to the sixteenth century of a complex sequence of phenomena stretching well into the eighteenth.[2] In the course of all this the term ‘renaissance’ has been subjected to some remarkable contortions, when it has not been excluded altogether.

[3]  The crux of the problem, in the light of twentieth-century English claims of a cultural translatio imperii of the renaissance to England, [3] is that the renaissance is seen as a positive movement, inextricable from vernacular literature, the introduction of printing, a popular religious reformation (Protestant), and an overall movement towards the eventual bright goal of the enlightenment. This focus on vernacular literature may be traced to four features of English culture. Only one of these is positive: the undeniable greatness of Shakespeare, perhaps the least educated major poet of his era. The three negative facts are that England did not produce painters to rival Leonardo and Michaelangelo, failed to generate any kind of literary figure who was recognised and appreciated beyond England by continental contemporaries, [4] and that, with the exception of Somerset House, sixteenth-century English architecture, however grandiose, paid little or no attention to classical canons of taste.[5]

[4]  It is worth stating that this is a highly local and peculiar definition of ‘renaissance’. To a student of Italy or France, it is the recovery of ancient knowledge (hence the notion of ‘rebirth’) which is central to defining the renaissance – the recovery of long-neglected Classical Latin texts, the pruning-away of medieval adaptations of the Latin language to changing ideas and circumstances, the reimposition of Classical models for both prose and verse, and the rediscovery of Classical Greek following the fall of Byzantium. Marching along with these adventures in language was a new concern with evidence and exact scholarship which produced an efflorescence of activity in both the practical and theoretical sciences, including painting and architecture. Though Petrarch’s vernacular verse was epoch-making for European literature, writing in the vernacular was not at the heart of the renaissance as an intellectual movement (and Petrarch himself, of course, was a distinguished Latin philologist). Naturally, since France and Italy have remained Catholic, choice of religious confession is not recognised as having anything to do with the matter at all.[6]

[5] It follows that the first necessity in talking about the Renaissance in Scotland is to decide which variety of renaissance you have in mind, continental or English. The English renaissance template, designed to account for Shakespeare, is so difficult to impose upon the fractured reality of early-modern Scotland that for long enough, the solution of choice was, as a subsidiary strategy, to marginalise the cultural and intellectual lives of the Montani and Boreali, and, as a main strategy, to deny that the renaissance had had any coherent impact on Scotland until a very limited form of it had become possible after the Reformation Parliament of 1560.[7] There were Petrarchan poets in sixteenth-century Scotland, but to advance James VI’s ‘Castalian band’ as the Scottish equivalent of the English renaissance canon of Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney and Shakespeare is a recipe for making Scottish culture look provincial and awkward. However, this begs the question of whether the English definition of renaissance is the only one which we might use.

[6]  The ways in which Scotland has been denied a renaissance of its own are predictable: a denial that fifteenth-century Scottish culture was sufficiently coherent to absorb new influences, or that Scots themselves were capable of comprehending a new intellectual movement, combined with the assertion that before 1560 the Scots were too backward, too poor, too superstitious or too downtrodden to have any time or capacity to absorb any renaissance influence which might have made its way so far north. As a consequence the international respublica litterarum of Latin letters and neo-Latin poetry has had to be sidelined as simply raising too many questions – or indeed, if one starts from the English position that the renaissance is about vernacularisation, it may not even be visible. Unfortunately, the result is that one of the major intellectual figures of the sixteenth century – a Calvinist to boot – the brilliant George Buchanan, is wiped off the cultural map of Scotland. The inadvisability of ignoring Latin, when in fact the Scottish contribution in this field was prolific and distinguished, will be the central point of the second section of this paper.

[7]  Court culture and the visual arts in Scotland, as well as most architectural manifestations of renaissance sensibility, have similarly been presented as fragmentary – a series of unconnected works either associated with the discontinuous ‘foreign’ courts of James V, Mary of Guise and Mary Queen of Scots, or merely produced during a series of brief visits made by foreign artists or architects. In fact, the fallacy of this last assertion is comprehensively demonstrated in Michael Bath’s Renaissance Decorative Painting in Scotland (2003). The study of Scottish architecture, in particular, has suffered from the fact that buildings based on continental models and expressive of renaissance agendas are not characteristic of Henrician and Elizabethan England, and therefore must be downplayed as aspects of a Renaissance culture.

[8]  All this continued to be asserted despite numerous scholarly works published in the later twentieth century which produced ample quantities of evidence to set against this set of historiographical misapprehensions. One highly visible example is the painstakingly nuanced discussion of the complexities of the sixteenth century in Michael Lynch’s Scotland, a new history (1991).[8] Another important area of the twentieth-century rediscovery of the arts in sixteenth century Scotland has been its music and poetry: in the last four or five decades, this has become far better-known, and much of the music has been performed and recorded. However, the periodisations offered by some Scottish university departments long continued to fight shy of the word ‘renaissance’ or declined to admit that it applied to any period before the 1560s, despite the rediscovery of Robert Carver (c.1484–c.1568), a composer of startling sophistication, who, unfortunately for his later reputation, wrote Catholic religious music. The effect of this dichotomy between a vibrant culture of rediscovery and a cultural paradigm into which it cannot be fitted is hard to encapsulate: it might be said that an atmosphere has persisted which discourages a connected or confident approach to the renaissance in Scotland, despite the excellent scholarly work being produced in many disciplines.

[9]  There are other factors too — the destruction wrought upon the buildings of the Scottish renaissance in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially the astonishingly-early Falkland Palace, where James IV’s work began in the 1500s, a palace which has been claimed not-implausibly as the first renaissance building in the British Isles. Scotland’s history of religious and political conflicts inflicted such a degree of damage on the great houses and palaces of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that by the twentieth, all that was visible was, with few exceptions, either a reconstruction or a conserved ruin. Both, axiomatically, give a false notion of the intentions of the original builders and create an arena of scholarly uncertainty where academic fantasy can flourish.

[10]  Perhaps the most indicative surviving early-modern interior in Scotland is the long gallery at Pinkie House, Midlothian, painted for Alexander Seton, first Earl of Dunfermline (1556–1622). It is indicative because of the sophistication of its development and adaptation of continental models, although in its intentions and in its early-seventeenth-century date it is perhaps most accurately described as an early work of the international baroque.[9] But it is one of very few early Scottish interiors to survive in situ in good condition, and can be taken as a pointer towards other such rooms now destroyed.

[11]  In interpreting the Pinkie House gallery in its full international context, the disjunction between what actually appears on its walls and the preconceptions enforced by historiography become apparent. The study of the Scottish renaissance takes on an aspect of extrapolation from fragmentary evidence, lost – or deliberately destroyed – artefacts, ruined castles; a kind of ghost-hunt for a context. Indeed, our working title for this paper was for a long time Ghost Renaissances.

[12]  The impulse to bring a few indicative ghosts nearer to the light of day has been strengthened by the recrudescence of historiographical bad habits in the comparatively recent and highly-praised single-volume history of Scotland The New Penguin History of Scotland from the earliest times to the present day (Houston and Knox 2001), with the explicit sponsorship of the National Museums of Scotland. Despite scholarly clarity in the text itself, the editorial divisions run Mediaeval Scotland from 1100–1560, and 1560–1707 is identified as ‘Reformation to Union’. There are substantial index entries for ‘Reformation’, none at all for ‘Renaissance’, and the University of Edinburgh, founded in 1582, is described as ‘mediaeval’ (xlvi). With all respect to the learned authors of the individual chapters, no attempt is made overall to see any cultural coherence in renaissance Scotland. Subconsciously, the lack of belief that Scotland was prepared in the late-fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to receive and absorb the new learning and the revitalised arts dominates the discourse of the whole book.

[13]  We would like now to advance some instances which suggest, on the contrary, the coherence and sophistication of the Scottish renaissance. They can only be pars pro toto in this context, but each has a connectedness which underlines the cogency of the reception of renaissance ideas, texts and images in Scotland. First, we would like to consider Hector Boece’s possession of a copy of Marsilio Ficino’s De Triplici Vita and the use to which he put it as Principal of the new King’s College in Aberdeen. This leads inevitably to a consideration of the integrity of the Aberdeen renaissance, in building, infrastructure, literary and historical activity, religious re-ordering and the use of the printing press.

[14]  The excellence of the Latin hymns composed in renaissance Aberdeen for the first substantial book to be printed in Scotland, The Breviary of Aberdeen, leads to a very brief consideration of Humanism in Scottish letters through the sixteenth century. The third part of this essay returns to the question of renaissance architecture and advances one startling piece of evidence for the sophistication of the mural painting of the Scottish sixteenth century (Bath 2007b; since these ideas are forthcoming in print, our treatment of them is of necessity brief). From here, some consideration of Scottish renaissance gardens leads to a concluding consideration of the anti-renaissance ‘black legend’ and its confessional origins as manifested in Scott’s The Antiquary (1816).


[15]  Hector Boece (c.1465–1536) was summoned from his position at the University of Paris, where he had earlier studied with Erasmus as a fellow-student, to be the first Principal of the new University of Aberdeen, founded by Bishop William Elphinstone (1431–1514) in the 1490s (Royan 2008). Boece’s career could be described as following the classic pattern for a renaissance savant. His Scotorum Historia, published at Paris in 1527, is not only a ‘Livy’ for the Scottish peoples, planting their origins in antiquity, but also makes full humanist use of recently-rediscovered classical sources: the Annales and Agricola of Tacitus, unearthed by Boccaccio and Poggio in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries respectively. In the same era, the Elphinstonian re-ordering of the diocese of Aberdeen, work on the Cathedral, foundation of the University, maintenance and building of bridges, was creating an exemplary renaissance church. The Bishop also sat for his portrait, the earliest known representation of a non-royal sitter in Scotland. Even more remarkable is that his foundation preserves it to this day.

[16]  Contrary to widespread misapprehension, held almost up to the quincentenary of the introduction of printing to Scotland, the press was introduced under Elphinstone’s supervision essentially to print mass-books and breviaries, according to the Royal Privilege granted on 15 September, 1507, as well as

Legendis of Scottis Sanctis as is now gadderit and ekit be ane Reverend fader in God, William, Bishop of Abirdene([Muir] 1854: xxiii note).

This is all part of a profoundly renaissance examination of origins and plural antiquities. Later, we will consider the sheer literary merit of the most distinguished Latin hymns composed for the 1509–10 Breviary of Aberdeen, but here it is important to recognise it as a real work of historical scholarship, as well as an attempt to reform from within the devotions of the Church, reserving devotion for historical as opposed to legendary saints. It was a very real attempt to provide a unifying identity for the ecclesia Scotticana, a parallel to the Historia.[10]

[17]  Elphinstone also introduced the teaching of medicine to Aberdeen from the beginning, and it is in this context that we see Boece making use of the work of the Medici circle at Florence within a decade of its first (controversial) publication. Aberdeen University Library Incunable 195 is a copy of Marsilio Ficino’s De Triplici Vita in an edition printed in France about 1494 by Georg Wolf and Johann Philippi de Cruzenach, and finely bound in Paris (Mitchell 1965: 73-74 no. 195). It was presumably bought by Boece in Paris towards the end of his time as a student and a regent at the University there (c.1485–1497). His signature on the first leaf is torn but unmistakable. The book subsequently belonged to Robert Gray who was Mediciner in King’s College (c.1522–1550). What is not noted in Mitchell’s catalogue of Aberdeen incunables is that the book is annotated throughout in what is almost certainly Boece’s hand (the annotations are not a commentary nor response so much as those standard renaissance marginalia which act as a kind of index reminding an owner which material is to be found on which page).[11] This suggests a degree of intimacy with the text, a continual study and re-reading. It is unsurprising that the new Principal of a new university should be drawn to Ficino’s three-part work on the preservation of health, in that the first part deals with means of preserving the health of students.[12]

[18]  Much of De Triplici Vita reads strangely today, but in its time it represented an almost breathless digest of medical theory new-gathered from antiquity and late-antiquity. Its central tenet is astrological, the consideration of the benign and malign aspects of the planets, especially on scholars, who are prone to the melancholiac diseases caused by study and solitude. Yet what the book is striving towards, without having a vocabulary or context for the expression of its nascent ideas, is a kind of psychology. Much of its material, although expressed in terms of astrological influence and counter-influence, is in fact about the danger of depression and possible mitigations of the depressive condition. It places great emphasis on the creation of an environment and regime of life to keep Saturnian depression at bay. When Boece bought his copy in Paris it represented perhaps one of the most advanced medical works then available. The book passed to the Mediciner Robert Gray, presumably on Boece’s death. We would like to advance the conjecture that Boece consulted this text when he oversaw the original layout of the College buildings, and that they were so constructed as to maximise positive solar influences on the members of the university.

[19]  According to Ficino the chief danger to which scholars are exposed is the depressive condition induced by the influence of Saturn.

I must tell you to beware also Saturn, with too much of his busy and secret delight in the contemplative mind, for he frequently devours his own sons in this. He seizes them with the enticements of his more sublime contemplations, and knows that he is in the meantime cutting them off from the earth with a kind of scythe if they are lingering too long there. He often kills the earthly life of these unwary people (Ficino 1980: 66).

This suggests that the Theology students would need particularly to be protected. Ficino later affirms that Theologians stand in unique danger. The more Mercurial and Apollonian, therefore Solar, avocations are less prone to melancholy:

We are easily and suddenly exposed to the planets through the feeling and exertion of the soul[…] Very often therefore in human affairs we are subject to Saturn, through idleness, solitude or strength, through theology and more secret philosophy, and through civil religion and law […] we are subject to the sun and to Mercury through the study of eloquence, skill in song, and the glory of truth (93).

Ficino’s suggestion for a remedy is expressed in astrological terms, but it also advocates a balanced diet, sunlight, and gentle exercise in gardens and fields:

If you want your body and spirit to receive power […] for example from the Sun, learn which are the Solar things among metals and stones, […] for there is no doubt that they confer on you similar qualities. These and more should be held forth and taken inside for their powers, especially on a day and in an hour of the sun, with the Sun reigning in its figure in the sky. Solar things are all those that are called heliotrope – because they are turned to the sun – for example, gold and the colour of gold, […] incense, musk, amber, balsam, golden honey […] saffron (90).

Again and again, Ficino returns to the benign power of the sun for those who have worked and speculated themselves into depression:

Our spirit would become heavenly, to the extent that reason dictates, if the rays and influxes of the Sun, ruling over the heavens were strongly applied to it. Thus with this spirit in our midst, all the heavenly blessings will abide in our body and soul: I call them heavenly blessings but really they are all contained in the sun […] the Sun when it is under Aries or Leo and the moon facing it, especially in Leo, confers in its Solar spirit a power that makes our own spirit flourish so much that it protects it against the poisons of an epidemic (97).

[20]  It is time to turn to the way in which Boece attempted to put these somewhat arcane recommendations into practise. We have no contemporary representation of King’s College as it was in the earlier sixteenth century: only the Chapel and one tower have survived subsequent rebuildings. There is an illustration of 1660, however, which gives a representation of Boece’s buildings, changed only at the north-east corner of the quadrangle. Also, an inventory of 1542 gives us the remarkable, Ficinian, names of the chambers and sets of rooms for the accommodation of the Principal, some of the academic staff, and the students.

[21]  Apart from the Principal’s quarters, there were two rooms named after constellations, five after planets and eight after signs of the zodiac. Excepting the Scorpio Chamber, which was the Old Library, there was accommodation in the last group for 13 Students in the arts, in the planet group for five founded Theologians and in the constellations group for the sub-principal and possibly the Dean of the faculty of arts or the Rector, only one of whom could reside in college./p>

[22]  On the South side of the chapel was a sundial at a height of 30 feet. Thomas Ross said it was ‘the earliest example of a sundial known in Scotland’. If one takes it in conjunction with the names applied to the chambers one has a symbolic representation of the macrocosm (Pickard 1979: I.3-4).

[23]  So the building overseen by Boece is a quadrangle oriented with the sides square to the four points of the compass. The Chapel occupies the north side, the east side is the Common Hall over the Schools. The west front to the street may have contained teaching rooms or the lodging of the Principal. The South range is the lodging range, its windows overlook the College Garden to the south and face the gilded Sundial on the south face of the Chapel across the quadrangle to the north. The famous Crown Spire of the chapel occupies the north-west corner. The south-west corner has a fine round tower with pinnacle, and with, at least by the 1660 drawing, large leaded windows. The south range is provided with fifteen south-facing windows and four chimneys. The south-east tower we know to have been the site of the original library in a chamber called Scorpio, later used as a strong-room.

[24]  The use of these rooms seems to have varied over time. The simplest version would suggest that

in the rooms on the south side: seven, named after the planets and constellations, were occupied by staff and senior students; seven, named after the signs of the Zodiac, were shared by the students of the arts (Carter and McLaren 1994: 16).

The full list is found in the text of the 1542 Inventory ([Muir] 1854: 574-76). The rooms would seem to have stretched from the east end of the west range, where were the substantial set of rooms for the Principal (which incidentally had a French Map amongst their ornaments: Ficino suggests a map coloured in green, azure and gold as a powerful talisman (1980: 151-52)). The Principal’s rooms do not have an astrological name.

[25]  There seem to be two types of room: single chambers, sometimes shared, and sets of rooms, sometimes possibly shared by students, or intended for staff. These double chambers have a ‘bibliotheca’ or study. Perhaps in the south-west tower were the rooms with study identified as Jove, its benign influences countering the negative Saturn which follows. (Oddly, at one point this room seems to have been assigned to a student of theology; perhaps because the Humanist, who in Ficinian terms was the best able to withstand saturnine influence, lived outwith the college in a manse opposite.) In the south range, the Corona has a study, Hercules, Luna, Mercury, and Venus (these were at one point assigned to the Dean and students in theology). There follow rooms at one point assigned to thirteen students in the arts. Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer (which had been the room and study of Subprincipal William Hay, and had maps still in it when the inventory was made), Leo, Virgo, Libra and finally, after the south window of the common hall, Scorpio in the south-east tower.

[26]  Almost all these rooms overlook the College Garden to the south, another Ficinian recommendation for the securing of benign influences being to frequent gardens:

In the same way, by the frequent use of plants and living things, you will be able to draw a great deal from the spirit of the world […] You should walk as often as possible amongst sweet-smelling plants […] with their fragrance, as if with the breath and spirit of world life, they will refresh you and make you flourish (Ficino 1980: 116-17).

That is all the evidence which remains to us: however the idea that the whole College itself is a microcosm relates to Ficino’s somewhat obscure recommendation of the benign effects of representations of the macrocosm, as a fresco or image or map (1980: 150-55), as positive for health and spirits. Less obscure, indeed compelling, is the evidence that Boece was disposing the lodgings of his students following Ficino’s suggestions for the best preservation of their health.[13] Constructed from ghosts, perhaps – a set of annotations and a manuscript inventory – but still evidence for Ficino in renaissance Aberdeen, for the rapid transmission of texts from Florence to Scotland.

[27]  Amongst the other achievements of Aberdeen humanism at the turn of the sixteenth century we should probably include a number of hymns from the Aberdeen Breviary. Some of the material on Scottish saints which Elphinstone introduced to the Propers for their respective celebrations almost certainly dates back to the pre-Norman Scottish church. Others are more probably of recent composition, such as the following:

En futura Anne Ioachique
Proles nunciatur concipiturque
Crescet hec nobis parietque virgo
Credula nobis

Sidus hoc primum rutilare cepit
Ut careremus tenebris opacis
Ut procellosos via per timores
Tuta pateret

Anne conceptus reticendus ille
Tantus ac talis canit ecce terra
Pontus exsultat recinuntque coelo
Phoebus et astra.

Interim toto studio canamus
Gloriam patri, genito sacroque
Pneumati, namque est Deus unus illis
Ignis amorque

Lo: it is announced to Anna and Joachim
That a child will be conceived
And she will grow for our sake,
And this believing virgin will give birth for us.

This star first begins to shine
So that we may be freed from deep darkness
So that the way through storming terrors
May lie safe.

Should so great and wonderful a conception of Anna’s
Be greeted with silence? Behold, the earth sings,
The sea rejoices, the sun and the stars re-echo
From the heavens

Meanwhile, let us sing with all our force
Glory to the father, to the sacred son
To the spirit, for God is one in them
And the fire of love.

(our translation; for the Latin, see Breviarium Aberdonense as edited in Breve and Blume 1892: XII. 53-54)

It is not impossible that this elegant hymn on the conception of the Virgin is by Elphinstone himself: he had a special devotion to the Virgin, on the evidence of Boece, and while we have no evidence that he versified, his father was certainly able to do so, as we know from a brief poem addressed either to himself, or perhaps to his little son, in one of his books of lecture-notes now at Aberdeen (AUL MS 196, fol. 132v). Alternatively, there would have been others among his coadjutors, such as Hector Boece or John Vaus, capable of such work. The Sapphic stanza (as used in the hymn above), deployed with the utmost elegance by Horace, was revived by ninth-century Latin poets such as Sedulius Scotus, and appears intermittently thereafter wherever Christian hymnodists were capable of writing in Classical metre. Such works, by virtue of their classicising form, are extremely hard to date. However, surprising though it might seem, the Virgin is not a usual topic for Irish and Scottish hymnographers. The liturgical celebration of the conception of the Virgin entered the Catholic festal year in the eighth century, but was not strongly promoted until it was championed by Sixtus IV, who was only ten years dead when Elphinstone visited Rome in 1494. The fact that this is a hymn for a feast which that repository of Celtic saint-lore, the Martyrology of Oengus, does not even mention, suggests that it does not long predate the Breviary. The tight elegance of its train of thought, expressed through a series of images, marks it as the work of a writer of great ability – and thus we have more evidence of a renaissance sensibility in the north of Scotland, this time in the form of refined Latin poetry.


[28]  The Piccolomini Library in the cathedral of Siena is decorated throughout with a sequence of frescoes by Pinturicchio, representing the achievements of Pope Pius II, painted between 1502 and 1507. This particularly light, bright and graceful sequence of paintings includes a representation of James I graciously receiving the papal envoy, Aeneas Sylvius (as Pius II then was), in the year 1435. The king is portrayed sitting on a raised throne in an elegant Renaissance loggia, surrounded by exquisitely dressed courtiers. On the one hand, this is not what a fifteenth-century Scottish court was actually like. On the other, Pinturicchio expresses a sort of truth. Fifteenth-century Scotland was strange, grim, and poor in the eyes of a cosmopolitan Italian such as Aeneas Sylvius, but in terms of the life of the mind, it was not barbarian. Scotland had three universities by the end of the fifteenth century, St Andrews (1411), Glasgow (1451) and Aberdeen (1495). Centuries later, Samuel Johnson remarked, ‘I know not whether it be not peculiar to the Scots to have attained the liberal, without the manual arts, to have excelled in ornamental knowledge, and to have wanted not only the elegancies, but the conveniences, of common life’ (Leask 1910: xxix). One might conjecture that more elegancies and conveniences might have been visible before a century of civil wars and religious conflict.

[29]  The renaissance affinities of the Scottish monarchy are revealed by their literary patronage. The Scottish royal library included an exquisite Renaissance Italian manuscript of the Aeneid (EUL 195, written by one ‘Florius infortunatus’). Since the illuminations include the royal arms, this was a commissioned book, not merely a purchase. James III, the probable patron of this manuscript, also commissioned portraits of himself, his queen and his son from the Flemish master Hugo van der Goes (McQueen 1977: 194).[14] His son James IV was a patron of poets; five payments to Blind Hary, author of the Wallace, are mentioned in the treasurers’s accounts between 1490 and 1492, and the court also supported William Dunbar with an annual pension of £10 (McQueen 1977: 196).

[30]  As Pinturicchio implies, the Scots court was a centre of humanistic learning. James III’s royal secretary for much of his reign, Archibald Whitelaw, was a graduate of St Andrews who had taught both at his alma mater and at Cologne before entering royal service. Not a few of his books survive, both incunables and manuscripts; they include texts by Lucan, Appian, Horace, and Sallust (Durkan and Ross 1958: 159). We have here in Aberdeen a composite Italian manuscript of Florus, Orosius and Dares Phrygius which belonged to him (AUL MS 214). He composed and delivered a Latin oration in 1484 at Nottingham, addressed to Richard III, which seems to be the first piece of extended humanistic prose composed by a Scot. In its eight highly Ciceronian pages, he refers to Cicero four times, Virgil five times, Seneca, Sallust, and Livy, once each.[15]

[31]  Towards the end of the fifteenth century, James IV spoke Latin very well, as well as French, German, Flemish, Italian, Spanish, and Gaelic, according to Pedro de Ayala, the Spanish ambassador. While he supported vernacular poets, James also continued to employ Whitelaw, and his chief secretary, Patrick Panter, was an able latinist.[16] But his interest in the new learning is also witnessed by his support of the Italian alchemist John Damian de Falcuis, who attempted to fly from the walls of Stirling Castle in 1507 (Leslie 188-95: II.125). Damian crash-landed in a dunghill and broke his leg in 1507, but James continued to maintain him until 1513.

[32]  Most of the writers patronised by James IV wrote in Scots rather than Latin. There is a real case for the view that in 1500, Scots was a more flexible and sophisticated literary language than was English. Gavin Douglas, a very bad bishop but a very good poet, translated the Aeneid into Scots at the beginning of the sixteenth century; the first complete English translation, and in the view of C.S. Lewis and Ezra Pound, among others, one of the best which has ever been made. ‘He makes the world of the Aeneid seem almost contemporary; Virgil’s characters might be just around the corner’ (Austin 1956: 16-17). His version locates, or as it were, naturalises the Aeneid in the landscape familiar to him. The essentially humanist nature of this undertaking is signalled by the fact that he also translated the so-called thirteenth book of the Aeneid, written by the Italian humanist Maffeo Vegio.

[33]  The royal court thus supported a variety of humanistic activity in the second half of the fifteenth century, but so of course did the three Scottish universities. Fifteenth-century Scots were among the international tribes of wandering scholars, going from one university to another. Even before then, and marching along with the establishment of native seats of learning, Scottish scholars learned, and indeed taught, on the continent, most commonly in Paris, but also in centres such as Cologne and Navarre. James Ledelh, or Liddel, was teaching in Paris in the 1480s, where two short tracts of his composition reached print; making him the earliest Scotsman to publish his work in his own lifetime (Johnstone and Robertson 1929-30: I.4). The next, Gilbert Crab, was also an Aberdonian.

[34]  Erasmian humanism came to Scotland as part of the intellectual, and indeed, physical baggage of men such as the Archibald Whitelaw already mentioned, and Hector Boece, historian, and first principal of Aberdeen. In addition to the copy of Ficino which has already been discussed, Aberdeen University Library includes a number of Boece’s own books, including a copy of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia, printed by Leonardus Holle at Ulm in 1482, with some contemporary hand-colouring and an inscription in Boece’s hand presenting the book to the University. Boece was a personal friend of the Erasmus, and the dedicatee of his only volume of poetry (1495). John Mair the theologian was another enthusiast for the new learning. When, against a background of official criticism, the Italian scholar Girolamo Aleandro introduced the teaching of Greek to Paris, Mair was one of his pupils. Aleandro wrote: ‘There are many Scottish scholars to be found in France who are earnest students in various of the sciences and some were my most faithful hearers — John Mair, the Scot, doctor of theology, and David Cranston, my illustrious friends’ (our translation; Renaudet 1953: 614 note).

[35]  Elphinstone’s creation, King’s College, was among the most humanistically oriented institutions in sixteenth-century Scotland. It is worth observing that the books which Elphinstone and Boece left to King’s are, to a surprising extent, printed – incunables almost equalling the number of manuscripts which they left. Like Elphinstone himself, sponsor of the Aberdeen breviary, the King’s professoriate were strongly committed to the use of the press as a teaching tool from very early on. John Vaus, the first Professor of Humanity, wrote the earliest grammatical primer in Scots, known as Rudimenta puerorum, which was published in Edinburgh by Andro Myllar in 1507. Hector Boece published the earliest advanced classbook, written for the King’s dialectics class and printed in Paris in 1519; a little poem dedicates it affectionately ‘Ad generalis Aberdonensis gymnasii studiosam dialectice iuventutem’, or ‘to the studious youth in dialectic of the common school of Aberdeen’ (Johnstone and Robertson 1929-30: I.23).

[36]  The Italian humanist Giovanni Ferrereo (who will be a crucial witness in the third part of this essay), in the preface to his defence of Cicero’s poetry which was published at Paris in 1540, but composed at the Abbey of Kinloss in Moray in 1534, heaps praise on the University of Aberdeen as worthy to hold its place in terms of intellectual distinction with greater universities in Europe. He mentions by name, and praises highly for their skills in their avocations, Hector Boece, Robert Gray the Professor of Medicine (and subsequent owner of Boece’s Ficino) Boece’s brother Arthur, and the grammarian or Humanist John Vaus (Anderson and Johnstone1889-98: xxii-iii note).

[37]  In Scotland, which was in this respect quite unlike England, the Reformation coincides with a retreat from the vernacular. The sons of that reformation subsequently sought to marginalise Scottish achievement in neo-Latin because so much of it was the work of Catholics and Episcopalians, but in fact, the reasons for clinging to Latin were practical rather than confessional. Despite the considerable merits of Scots as a medium for literature, demonstrated by such sophisticated writers as Dunbar and Henryson, simple economics prioritised Latin as a medium for the intellectually ambitious. James V, Mary, and James VI all came to the throne as very young children; regency governments are caretakers, and seldom loci of literary patronage. Once adult, James VI went through a phase of supporting Petrarchan poetics in Scotland (see Shire 1969), but in 1603, he moved the court to London and turned his attention elsewhere. Even after a century of printing, the internal market for books was tiny, so scholars and writers needed to look to patronage for their support. Without a monarch on the throne, few pensions were to be had (some Scottish writers received patronage from major magnates, but there were few who could afford anything very extensive). One of the very few sixteenth-century Scots writers in the vernacular who could realistically look for an audience in England was John Knox, who spent many years there, and successfully mastered the language.[17]

[38]  However, Scots who stayed home were taught to write Scots, not English, alongside Latin:  James Melville described his internationally-famous uncle Andrew, a distinguished Latin poet and theologian,  who had studied and taught in Paris, Poitiers and Geneva, as having been reputed in his youth ‘the best philosopher, poet, and Grecian, of anie young maister in the land’; and Andrew it was who would teach his nephew ‘the tongues’. As even these few words from James’s autobiography makes clear, he himself wrote in a full system of Scots, and hardly anyone south of Hadrian’s wall was prepared to make the effort to read Scots (Pitcairn 1842: 39).[18] Writing in Latin, on the other hand, offered potential fame and position not only in England, but elsewhere in Europe.[19] Andrew Melville ended his days as a professor in Sedan, an outpost of Calvinism in northern France.

[39]  Perhaps the single most remarkable Scottish product of the Reform is George Buchanan (1506–1582), who to the Parisian humanist printer, Henri Estienne, was ‘poetarum nostri saeculi facile princeps’ (easily the greatest of the poets of our age), studied by both Protestants and Catholics (Leask 1910: III.278). Buchanan taught at various times in Scotland, France and Portugal; he was the author of a number of Latin plays, and above all, of a set of psalm paraphrases that were read throughout Europe, as well as of a history of Scotland.

[40]   Moving on to the early seventeenth century, another writer equally central to the corpus of Neo-Latin, John Barclay, was the son of a Scottish father, though since he was an exile for religion’s sake, his son’s upbringing was entirely continental. Barclay is the author of perhaps the most successful novel ever written in Latin, Argenis (1621), but this cannot really be said to reflect more than indirect credit on his fatherland.[20] But the record of native Scottish humanism was not undistinguished, as it is exhibited in the Scottish Parnassus created by Drummond of Hawthornden as part of the entertainment offered to Charles I on his visit to Edinburgh in 1633. It is an interesting insight into who a sophisticated Scot of the period perceived as the intellectual giants of his own nation (only two out of the list wrote in Scots rather than Latin, Douglas and Lindsay):

In the middle of the streete, there was a Mountain dressed for Parnassus, where Apollo and the Muses appeared, and ancient Worthies of Scotland, for learning was represented; such as Sedullius, Ioannes, Duns, Bishop Elphinstoun of Aberdeen, Hector Boes, Joannes Major, Bishop Gawen Douglasse, Sir David Lindsay, Georgius Buchananus; the word over them was Fama super aethera noti. (Drummond 1633: 13)

The first two names, Sedulius Scotus and John Scotus Eriugena, are respectively those of a ninth-century proto-humanist Latin poet, grammarian and student of Greek, and of a profoundly learned Neoplatonist, the most original thinker of the ninth century (and also a Greek scholar), both of whom were active in the Frankish empire. Both were in fact Irishmen, but early modern Scots, unaware that the term ‘Scot’ had changed its meaning, claimed them as their own. The thirteenth-century John Duns Scotus, who was genuinely a Scot, was one of the most important theologian-philosophers of his century, taught in Paris and Cologne, and bore the sobriquet of ‘the Subtle Doctor’. Drummond might also have finished up by mentioning his own uncle William Fowler, educated in St Andrew’s and Paris, the author of a translation of Petrarch’s Trionfi, among much else.

[41]  Scottish humanism might be said to have come of age with the publication of a substantial volume, Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum, set on foot by Sir John Scot of Scotstarvet, a close friend of Drummond’s, and the founder of the Latin Chair at St Andrews. This was published in Amsterdam by Johann Blaeu in 1637, in imitation of the national collections of neo-Latin verse created by Jan Gruter, Delitiae Poetarum Belgarum, Italorum, and so forth. Perhaps the most distinguished of the thirty-seven poets included in the collection was Arthur Johnston, who was also its editor. Other poets include Thomas Reid, Latin secretary to James VI, and a major donor to Aberdeen University library, and David Wedderburn, who not only taught at Aberdeen, but had among his duties, a sort of local laureateship:

To compose in Latine, both in prose and verse, quhatsumever purpose or thame concerning the common affairis of the toune ather at hame or a-field as he sal be required by any of the magistrattis or clerk in tyme comeing (Walker 1887: 46-47; Anderson and Johnstone 1889-98: I. 185).

Require they did; Wedderburn’s work include public verse such as In obitu Summae Spei Principis Henrici (On the Death of our greatest hope, Prince Henry), Syneuphranterion in reditu regis in Scotiam (General Rejoicing on the Return of the King to Scotland (1617)), and, of more local interest, Liddeli Apotheosis (the Apotheosis of Duncan Liddel).

[42]  Liddel was an astronomer, mathematician and doctor of medicine who made his career abroad (at Frankfurt, Breslau, Rostock and Helmstedt), began his education at King’s, and ended his life back in Aberdeen, much involved with the then newly-founded Marischal College. He left money for a town orator and a certamen poeticum; some of George Jamesone’s portraits of grave black-clad scholars sporting an unexpected flower behind the ear signal thus their status as the winners of poetic certamina (Anderson and Johnstone 1889-98).[21]

[43]  It might reasonably be asked what part, if any, women played in early Scottish humanism. It is a question easier to ask than answer. Mary Stuart, in common with all the Valois princesses of her day, could turn a Latin distich and read the standard authors with ease, but she, of course, was educated at the French court. In the mid-sixteenth century, Joachim Du Bellay wrote a poem to a woman with the good Scots name of Marie Hay (‘Ad Mariam Hayam’), praising her verses, without making it clear whether they were in Latin or French (1558: 29-39).[22] The most thought-provoking learned Scotswomen actually brought up in her native land is Marie Maitland, daughter of Richard Maitland, Lord Lethington (1496–1586). A poem in Scots which appears to be hers, written in the 1580s, reveals considerable knowledge of Classical history; fascinatingly, it can be fairly claimed as the first overtly lesbian poem from anywhere in the British Isles, written from one woman to another expressing a wish that one of them change sex so they can marry (the Maitland Quarto manuscript, Pepys MS 1408: fols. 78v-79v; printed in Craigie 1929: 160-62 no. xlix; see also the Maitland Folio, Pepys MS 2552; Craigie 1919-27).[23] An anonymous poem in the same Quarto manuscript, ‘To your self’ (fol. 126r; cf. Craigie 1929: 257) makes considerable claims for Marie Maitland as a learned poet, since stanza 1 compares her to Sappho, and stanza 2 to the sixteenth-century Latin poet and polymath, Olimpia Morata. We think it likely that Marie Maitland could read Latin, though this cannot be directly demonstrated.

[44]  Despite the fact that there are very clear instances of Scottish families in which a tradition of learning was maintained, there is no direct evidence for learned wives or daughters until the end of the sixteenth century, when Anna Hume, daughter of David Hume of Godscroft, the historian, Latin poet and essayist, translated the Latin verses in her father’s History of the Houses of Douglas and Angus. She is probably also identifiable as the ‘Gentlewoman’ responsible for the editing and publication of this work, referred to in a letter of William Drummond of Hawthornden (NLS MS 2061; no. 30), and she translated Petrarch’s Trionfi. In the seventeenth century, the mathematician James Gregory (1638–1675), who was somewhat sickly as a child, received his early education (including an introduction to geometry) from his mother Janet Anderson, suggesting that her family had taken to educating its daughters.

[45]  Leaving aside the apparent absence of women from the ranks of Scottish humanists, Latin learning throve in seventeenth-century Scotland. On the threshold of baroque internationalism in the arts, this is a good point to end this survey, emphasising how firmly Drummond’s 1633 Parnassus in the streets of Edinburgh simply assumed a common consent that Scotland had a distinguished humanist, fully renaissance, tradition stretching back into the fifteenth century (or even the ninth), universally acknowledged and, at the time, a matter of national pride.


[46]  We spoke in the introduction to this paper of the pursuit of ghost renaissances – the reconstruction of a mentality or a phenomenon from fragmentary references, such as Boece’s Ficino, or the Breviary’s sophisticated hymn. Another such passing reference suggests a world of sophistication in the Scottish élite reception of renaissance design in the earlier sixteenth century, of which hardly any examples survive. Bishop William Elphinstone’s efforts in the diocese of Aberdeen were supported by a reforming prelate at the Cistercian abbey of Kinloss in Moray, Abbot Thomas Crystall: the Italian scholar, Giovanni Ferrerio, taught a humanist curriculum, including the Greek language, there from 1532.[24]

[47]  In his history of Kinloss, Fererrio makes passing mention of a painter, Andrew Bairhum, who has painted three altarpieces in the abbey church with religious subjects, but he also painted the Abbott’s cell, and a large chamber leading up to it: ‘In the lighter style of painting which is now customary throughout Scotland’ [pictura leviore quae nunc est per Scotiam receptissima]. Professor Bath suggests that this can only refer to the style of painting after the antique, now internationally identified as ‘grotesque’. Ferrerio’s expression ‘painted in the lighter style’ matches exactly the title of one of the earliest sets of Italian, mannerist ornament prints, published in about 1540, Leviores et (ut videtur) Extemporaneae Picturae Quas Grottesches Vulgo Vocant (Lighter, and (as it seems) Improvised Pictures, which in the Vulgar Tongue are called ‘grotteschi’) (cf. Berliner and Egger 1981: nos. 277, 179). Bath explains that

If Ferrerius’s comment means that the ‘lighter style’ was grotesque painting, then we have to believe that this style was already becoming fashionable in Scotland as early as 1538.

He concludes,

We should not make the all too common mistake of assuming that Scotland was a provincial, outlandish backwater. On the contrary, it was in touch with the heights of decorative taste in its use of this ‘lighter style’ of painting (Bath 2007b).

Indeed, little attention has been being paid to a remarkable fragment in another monastic building not far from Kinloss. This is on the underside of the chancel arch at Pluscarden Abbey, near Elgin (there appears to be no notice of the painting in the pioneering work on Scottish painting by Apted and Hannabuss, 1978)). It shows sun, moon and stars as if falling, and at the bottom of the north side, much damaged but still fluently outlined, St John with eagle in an aedicule, with traces of a landscape behind. The work would very plausibly date from the second quarter of the sixteenth century. Presumably, it constituted a subsidiary part of a doom painting on boards filling the chancel arch as at the church of Foulis Easter in Angus.

[48]  Together with Ferrerio’s notice of painting at Kinloss, this begins to suggest considerable activity in painting in an accomplished, international style, which may have been far from uncommon in the northern counties. Certainly, it suggests that there were informed patrons there, with connections to Paris and Italy, as well as to the internationalist University in the regional capital.

[49]  Perhaps the single most destructive historical trope is to interpret as primitive and random any Scottish manifestation of informed internationalism. This trope gives rise to a whole set of errors from the total falsification of early-modern Scottish literature which results from the attempt to sideline Scottish Latin, to the persistent (and pernicious) habit of showing renaissance castles stripped back to the stone as though they were the caves of banditti rather than the palaces of members of a European élite.

[50]  A final example of a Scottish renaissance work generally treated as an inexplicable grotesque when it is in fact part of a continuum, is the castle garden at Edzell in Angus, built for Sir David Lindsay, Lord Edzell in the years 1604–10. His continental affiliations and interest in contemporary mining technology seem unexceptional in the context of a renaissance Scotland perceived as such. The garden at Edzell occupies a natural point in the development of the renaissance garden in northern Europe, informed by the kinds of astrological and iconographic awarenesses which attended the early botanic gardens (cf. Prest 1981) and moving towards the sensibility which later produced the Hortus Palatinus at Heidelberg.[25] The series of reliefs of Planetary Deities, Liberal Arts and Virtues (all derived from continental engravings) have been subjected to wildly speculative interpretations, as though they had neither context nor point of reference.

[51]  However, seen in the light of Boece’s Ficinian layout at King’s College Aberdeen (or indeed in the light of the microcosmic layout of the Botanical Garden at Padua) they appear much less surprising as a renaissance way of articulating place, possibly as a locus memoriae, possibly along the lines of astronomical affinity (and antipathy) with the arts and virtues.

[52]  This garden has a not-insignificant fictional afterlife. In Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary set in a curiously-imagined north-eastern Scotland – Angus with some aspects of Aberdeenshire and Moray – the evil German swindler, illuminatus and treasure-hunter in the service of a local laird recalls Lord Edzell’s German technicians and the magical affinities read into his garden.

[53]  At the heart of the novel – dweller in dark corners and source of darkness – is the Catholic Lord Glenallan, a summary of all that Scott feared from the territories beyond Aberdeen with their dissident religious history. Glenallan’s household is depicted as a place of mediaeval darkness surviving into the last decade of the eighteenth century. The statement could hardly be made more clearly that Catholicism, and, by implication, Jacobitism, of themselves enforce a mediaeval condition of life on their adherents.

[54]  The extraordinary contemplation remains to us that the confessional and historical prejudices of 1816, may have gone underground into a species of academic collective unconscious, but they still inform the chapter divisions of the Scottish history of 2001 sponsored by the Museums of Scotland. That history would extend the Scottish middle ages until the year 1560, reducing the Erasmian and Ficinian learning of late fifteenth-century Aberdeen, the use of printing to advance the reform-from-within of the early sixteenth century Church, and a century of humanist achievement in Latin letters to a set of inchoate responses to foreign models by a nation which only acquired in the year 1560 the intellectual maturity to understand the matter of the international renaissance.

University of Aberdeen



[1] Distinction of ‘boreali’ is made axiomatically by such early historians as Hector Boece (cf. Watson 1946). [back to text]

[2] The conformity of the majority of Scotland’s many Episcopalians to the Kirk is a process which is not by any means concluded until the mid-eighteenth century. [back to text]

[3] This was achieved, according to such early-twentieth-century critics as Sir Herbert Grierson, without the complicating interventions of the Latin respublica litterarum, the printing presses of the Spanish Netherlands, or the Society of Jesus. A comprehensive debunking of the myth of the relationship between renaissance Italy and Elizabethan England can be found in Wyatt 2005. [back to text]

[4] In 1563, the well-connected Petrus Ramus confessed that he could not name a single English scholar (van Dorsten 1970: 12). [back to text]

[5] Somerset House, in the Strand, built for Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of England, ‘gave England its first classical building comparable in sophistication with what was being designed in Europe at that time’ (Howarth 1997: 20). [back to text]

[6] Erika Rummel (2000) considers this as a problem in its own right, suggesting an interesting direction for future research on Scotland. [back to text]

[7] The problem presented to a single, forward-moving narrative of progress in Scotland by the renaissance, is as nothing compared to the problem presented by Stuart loyalism and Jacobitism, where more extreme historiographical strategies were needed. [back to text]

[8] His identification of James IV and James V as marking the end of a mediaeval kind of kingship is emphatically not an assertion that their reigns were, in Scottish terms, mediaeval. Another scholar who has consistently written at the highest level about renaissance, Catholic and internationalist Scotland is John Durkan. That these two are singled out implies no lack of appreciation of the work of others. [back to text]

[9] There is a comprehensive, illustrated account of Seton’s Gallery (Bath 2003; Bath 2007a). Pinkie House is currently part of a school, and access is therefore extremely difficult, especially during term. [back to text]

[10] It may be advanced as an interim conclusion that its success was greatest amongst the Scoti Boreali: the Strathmore copy which was in the early sixteenth century in the possession of a canon of Glasgow Cathedral, has many Sarum commemorations written into it, and Scottish ones erased. (By the kindness of the Earl of Strathmore and Dr Bill Zachs, I was enabled to examine this copy.) Dr Arnold Hunt of the British Library advances the suggestion that the fragment of the Breviary which they hold has been used in the earlier sixteenth century as binding waste. Certainly, there was no reprint. [back to text]

[11] Interestingly, Gray has written a page of medical prescriptions on one of two leaves inserted at the end. One of them offers camomile and parsley as a cure for gall-stones, which would not seem to accord with Ficino’s astrological theory of herbal medicine. [back to text]

[12] The three parts of the book are ‘On caring for the health of Students’, ‘How to prolong your life’, and the third which is distinctly venturing into territories of neo-Platonist magic: ‘On making your life agree with the heavens’ which could also be translated ‘On harnessing the life of the heavens’. [back to text]

[13] Michael Bath reminds me that the Palace Block at Stirling, built by James V in the later 1530s has representations of the planetary gods. Copies from prints by Hans Burgkmair of Jupiter and Venus that are clearly identifiable. RCAHMS Stirlingshire says Sol and Saturn are also copied, but the resemblance is too slight to be convincing. Burkmair’s Venus and Mars are also copied on Henry VIII’s writing desk, now in the Victoria and Albert musuem in London. Burgkmair’s are fully Italianate renaisssance designs. Gifford and Walker (2002: 682) do not commit themselves to iconographies or identifications, but concede that the theme of the sculpture would seem to be unified by ‘a strong sun theme’. For an early attempt on this subject, though eclipsed by later scholarship, see Shire (1996). [back to text]

[14] James also commissioned a manuscript of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville in 1467. [back to text]

[15] Other Latinists supported by the court were John Ireland, and John Reid of Stobo (Durkan 1990: 123-40). [back to text]

[16] Patrick Panter was a man of some learning, who had attended the Collège de Montaigu in Paris and studied at the University of Louvain from 1498–1503. He became tutor to two of the king’s illegitimate sons. [back to text]

[17] Much of Knox’s oeuvre is in English, for example, An Answer to a Letter of a Jesuit called Tyrie, though it was printed in St Andrews by Robert Lekpreuik (1570). Somewhat later, William Drummond of Hawthornden could also write English (e.g. Forth Feasting: a panegyrike to the King’s most excellent maiestie (1617), but this was not a common accomplishment – Drummond, again, had spent considerable time in England. [back to text]

[18] Andrew’s poetry for royal occasions, such as the 1590 coronation of Anna of Denmark at Holyrood, or the birth of Prince Henry Frederick, was naturally in Latin for international consumption. James translated several of his uncle’s Latin poems into Scots for domestic consumption;  his own late letters to his exiled uncle in France are in Latin, as was his posthumously published Ad Serenissumum Jacobum Primum […] ecclesiae scoticanae libellus supplex (1645), aimed at an international audience. [back to text]

[19] The only important writer of the Scottish Reformation period to do so in Scots is David Lindsay (c. 1490–1555). [back to text]

[20] Though he did, however, write in praise of the Scots in the Icon Animorum (1614), a collection of sketches of the characters of nations. He does not, however, seem to have visited Scotland, and was not formed by Scottish renaissance culture, except in his family. [back to text]

[21] Jamesone’s portrait of Johnston, now University of Aberdeen, Marischal Museum, ABDUA 30093, is described as ‘Oil painting on an oak panel, bust portrait of Johnston wearing large ruff, with pink flower behind right ear, bearded, ginger hair. Johnston was an MA and Professor of Mathematics in 1633. He took receipt of William Jamesone’s (George Jamesone’s brother) mathematical instruments and books in the terms of Jamesone’s will’ (online museum catalogue at http://www.abdn.ac.uk/lemur). [back to text]

[22] George Hay, Minister of Rathven and moderator of the General Assembly in 1570, was educated in Paris (Leask 1910: III.120): did he have a learned sister? [back to text]

[23] Pepys MS 1408, the Maitland Quarto MS, was written either by or for Marie Maitland. [back to text]

[24] He wrote a history of the abbey; Ferrerii historia abbatum de Kynlos (Wilson 1839), in humanist Latin. Kinloss (Moray) was in the diocese of Brechin, not of Aberdeen. However, Crystall not only improved monastic observance at Kinloss, winning praise from the historian Hector Boece, but also at its daughter-houses of Culross and Deer, which he had power to do according to the Cistercian system of filiation. He was a liberal almsgiver, and also bought books for the library (Durkan 1981: 181-94). Ferrerio later worked on the continuation of Hector Boece’s standard History of Scotland, and whilst working at Kinloss he compiled a collection of Latin proverbs, many of which found their way into Erasmus’s great Adagia. He was very intensely connected to the humanist community of Aberdeen as his praise of them, see p. 15 above, suggests. [back to text]

[25] The question of the ‘King’s Knot’ at Stirling must also be borne in mind. There is considerable uncertainty of the date of the garden work now visible as earthworks. The Buildings of Scotland favour a seventeenth-century date, but it seems wholly possible that this campaign was to repair works undertaken at the same time as the building of the Palace block. What seems worth considering is the degree to which the octagonal mount with its space for artificial water with a central island on its summit may reflect that important source for the renaissance garden throughout Europe, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francesco Colonna, published at Venice in 1490. Certainly the ‘King’s Knot’ as now visible has a good deal in common with the topography of the gardens of that dream-narrative. [back to text]



Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Library MS 196

Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Library MS 214

Cambridge, Magdalen College, Pepys Library, MSS 2553 and 1408

Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Library, MS 195

Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS 2061, no. 30

Barclay, John. 1614. Icon Animorum (London: John Bill)

Drummond of Hawthornden, William. 1617. Forth Feasting: a panegyrike to the King’s most excellent maiestie (Edinburgh: Andro Hart)

—–1633. The entertainment of the high and mighty monarch Charles, king of Great Britaine, France and Ireland (Edinburgh)

Knox, John. 1570. An Answer to a Letter of a Jesuit called Tyrie (St Andrews: Robert Lekpreuik)

Melville, James. 1645. Ad Serenissumum Jacobum Primum […] ecclesiae scoticanae libellus supplex (London: George Thomason & Octavian Pullen)

Secondary and Editions

Anderson, P. J. and J.F.K. Johnstone (eds). 1889-98. Fasti academiae Mariscallanae Aberdonensis: selections from the records of the Marischal College and University, MDXCIII–MDCCCLX, 3 vols (Aberdeen: New Spalding Club)

Apted, M.R. and S. Hannabuss. (1978). Painters in Scotland, 1301-1700 (Edinburgh:Edina Press)

Austin, R. G. 1956. Some English Translations of Virgil (Liverpool: the University Press)

Bath, Michael. 2003. Renaissance Decorative Painting in Scotland (Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland)

_____. 2007a. ‘Ben Jonson, William Fowler and the Pinkie Ceiling’, Architectural Heritage, 18: 73-86

_____. 2007b. Unpublished lecture at Glasgow University Library, 25 October

Berliner, Rudolf und Gerhart Egger. 1981. Ornamentale Vorlageblätter des 15. bis 16. Jahrhunderts (Munich)

Carter, Jennifer and Colin McLaren. 1994. Crown and Gown, 1495–1995 (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press)

Craigie, W.A. (ed.). 1919-27. The Maitland Folio Manuscript, 2 vols, Scottish Text Society, ns 7 and 20 (Edinburgh and London: Blackwood)

Craigie, W.A. (ed.). 1920. The Maitland Quarto Manuscript, Scottish Text Society, ns 9 (Edinburgh and London: Blackwood)

Dreves, Guido Maria and Clemens Blume (eds). 1892. Analecta Hymnica Medii Aevi, 30 vols (Leipzig: Reisland)

du Bellay, Joachim. 1558. ‘Ad Mariam Hayam’, Ioachimi Bellaii audini poematum libri quatuor (Paris: Federicus Morellus)

Durkan, J. and A. Ross. 1958. ‘Early Scottish libraries’, Innes Review 9: 5–167

Durkan, J. (1981). ‘Giovanni Ferrerio, humanist: his influence in sixteenth-century Scotland’, in Religion and Humanism, ed. by K. Robbins, Studies in Church History 17 (Oxford), 181–94

_____. 1990. ‘Education: the laying of fresh foundations’, in Humanism in Renaissance Scotland, ed. by J. MacQueen (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)

Ficino, Marsilio. 1980. The Book of Life, trans. by Charles Boer (Irving, Texas:Spring Publications)

Gifford, John and Frank Arneil Walker. 2002. The Buildings of Scotland: Stirling and Central Scotland (New Haven and London: Yale University Press)

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Howarth, David. 1997. Images of Rule: Art and Politics in the English Renaissance, 1485-1649, (London: Macmilllan)

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Leask, William Keith (ed.). 1910. Musa Latinae Aberdonensis, 3 vols (Aberdeen: New Spalding Club)

Leslie, John. 188-95. History of Scotland, trans. by James Dalrymple, ed. by E.G. Cody, 2 vols (Edinburgh: for the Scottish Text Society)

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Frances Quarles’ Early Poetry and the Discourses of Jacobean Spenserianism

Frances Quarles’ Early Poetry and the Discourses of Jacobean Spenserianism

Adrian Streete


[1]  Early in 1621, King James was obliged to recall parliament for the first time in seven years. He took this action in response to the outbreak of war in Bohemia the year previously, a crisis that had already spread to neighbouring states in central Europe.[1]  These events had been precipitated by the less than politic actions of James’ son in law, Frederick, Elector Palatine. In 1619, and against his father in law’s advice, he acquiesced in the deposition of the Catholic ruler of Bohemia, Ferdinand. Frederick assumed the crown and restored Protestant rule to Bohemia. These actions had a number of consequences. First, Frederick antagonised the dual forces of the Holy Roman Empire and Spain, whose response was swift and decisive. Frederick’s army was ignominiously defeated outside Prague in 1620, a number of his commanders were sentenced to death in Prague Castle, and those who managed to escape joined the erstwhile Elector and his wife Elizabeth in exile in Holland. Second, and more pressingly, the crisis threatened to undermine the negotiations taking place for a marriage between James’ son, Charles, and the Spanish Infanta. The fact that James’s foreign policy was recognised across Europe as being assiduously and consistently based on the guiding principle of political pacifism made Frederick’s actions all the more provocative.

[2]  In England, the issue of how best to respond to the crisis divided opinion. On the one hand, there was considerable political and religious support for British military intervention in order to restore Frederick. Many of the more militantly minded Protestants saw this as the ideal opportunity to take on the might of Spain and thus, de facto, the papacy. On the other hand, not all agreed with this strategy and there certainly was opposition to this militant ideology, although it was perhaps less directly stated and rather more nebulous in character. But in any case, comment on the crisis was quickly forthcoming and spanned a range of genres from tracts, sermons, newspapers and drama (cf. Cogswell 1989a and Bellany 1994). In respect of the stage, scholars such as Margot Heineman, Jerzy Limon, A.A. Bromham, Zara Bruzzi and myself have shown the degree to which dramatists such as Middleton, Dekker and Massinger explored the religio-political issues thrown up by these crisis years (cf. Heinemann 1982; Limon 1986; Bromham and Bruzzi, 1990; Streete 2008; and my forthcoming essay on Field and Massinger’s The Fatal Dowry). Although there are interesting variations in approach between these dramatists, it is generally the case that they tended to be broadly pro the militant ideology expressed above and critical of the king’s pacific policy. The ultimate manifestation of this view is, of course, Thomas Middleton’s scandalous 1624 play A Game at Chess, although writers like Massinger did offer a rather more moderate response to the crisis.

[3]  In the case of poetry, reaction to these crisis years was no less involved. One group whose work has come under particular scrutiny in this regard are the so-called Jacobean Spenserians. Since the publication in 1969 of Joan Grundy’s The Spenserian Poets, much important research has been done on those early modern poets whose work self consciously imitates and reworks the formal and ideological aspects of Edmund Spenser’s political vision especially as expressed in his great epic poem The Faerie Queene. In contrast to the conservative, ‘pastoral’ construction of Spenser and his heirs that has dominated so much nineteenth and twentieth century criticism, I want to focus here on the central recuperation of the radical Spenserian tradition by scholars such as David Norbrook and Michelle O’Callaghan. Broadly speaking, they have pointed out that Spenserian ideology does not necessarily imply a right wing, conformist agenda but can instead be seen as congruent with the left wing of moderate and Puritan Protestantism. This outlook is characterised by its militantly apocalyptic conception of a nation state defined through its opposition to Rome and by its eagerness to intervene abroad on behalf of other Protestant powers against Catholic expansionism. Spenser’s use of the pastoral form is central to his poetics and to those who seek to follow in his wake: but this key marker of Spenserian ideology does not have to imply a quiescent political agenda. More work is needed in order to understand the political valences operative within the genre of early modern pastoral. However, it is clear that Jacobean Spenserianism is more politically interesting than has commonly been thought.

[4]  That said, there are some caveats needed here. In respect of monarchical power, the Spenserian critique of monarchical failures and in particular Jacobean pacifism is generally tempered by a contrary impulse that acknowledges the utility of monarchy as a political system. Indeed, this realisation is central to Richard Helgerson’s reading of certain important ideological tensions at play within The Faerie Queene. He argues that while the poem is ‘the product of a new monarchic centralism’, it also ‘resists that centripetal force’: ‘It represents an uneasy and unacknowledged compromise between a monarch who gives both the poem and the nation whatever unity and identity it has and the individual aristocratic knights whose adventures are the glory and the safety of the nation’ (Helgerson 1992: 57-58). This reading is important because it demonstrates that Jacobean Spenserians such as George Wither, Phineas Fletcher, Michael Drayton, William Browne and George Wither did not simply inherit a static ideological blueprint from Spenser’s writings that they could then co-opt for their own political ends. Rather, they were the inheritors of a contested set of ideological assumptions that required contemporary re-exploration, re-statement and re-fashioning. Part of this literary activity was, naturally enough, prompted by political events. As David Norbrook has shown, the failures of late Elizabethan policy in the 1590s invoked the twin spectres of apocalypticism and republicanism, ideologies that in very different ways bypass the claims of secular monarchy (136-139). And although the early part of James’s reign held out great hope for the Spenserian poets, the king’s relentlessly pacific foreign policy and increasingly cautious theological agenda meant that, by the time of the crisis years, the Jacobean Spenserians had much to comment upon. Whilst loyal to the notion of monarchy as an ideal, they were radically critical of the Jacobean practice of monarchy.

[5]  In her book The ‘Shepheards Nation’, Michelle O’ Callaghan offers a broad assessment of the ideological values connecting the Jacobean Spenserians at the close of James’ reign. She writes:

They can collectively be described as ‘patriots’: they are hispanophobes; they represent themselves as defenders of traditional liberties and oppose corruption at court; and they advocate an ‘Elizabethan’ revival which is equated with the reform of patronage systems, naval and colonial expansion, and a return to an aristocratic martialism. Religion tends to be viewed in political and geographic terms, rather than on a personalized basis  (O’ Callaghan 2000: 10).

Unsurprisingly, this ideological stance is virtually indistinguishable from those within the militant Protestant wing advocating a military response to the imminent European crisis. Poetry and politics thus coalesced in interesting ways during these years as the Spenserians sought, through networks of patronage and print, to intervene in and shape the nature of debate. But while these poets certainly formed what O’Callaghan has called a ‘politicized community’ (14), it is equally important to note that there were varieties of opinion and emphasis within this group. Precisely how the ideological agenda pursued by the Jacobean Spenserians manifests itself therefore needs to be explored not so much collectively, but rather on a poet-by-poet basis. While these poets do share many of the same preoccupations, there are also significant differences and diversions of emphasis and opinion.

[6]  This is particularly the case in relation to the poet Francis Quarles. Born in 1592, Quarles is undoubtedly best known for his extremely popular book of Emblemes first published in 1635. In terms of critical history, the only extended study of the writer is Karl Holtgen’s German language critical biography of 1978. In the main, English language critics have tended to focus on the Emblemes as well as on the writings produced by Quarles during the English Civil war. For Christopher Hill, Quarles was ‘always a staunch middle-of-the-road Calvinist Anglican, satisfied with the Jacobean church […] wishing to see no change in the direction of popery (or Arminianism) or of sectarianism’ (190-91). More recently, Robert Wilcher’s work has revised this view. Much more sensitive to the vicissitudes of Quarles’ political ideology, Wilcher finds that in his late poetry there exists ‘the nucleus for a royalist party in the Commons and in the country’ (71). Much of the material that Quarles produced during this period, including the verse romance Argalus and Parthenia and the pastoral Eclogues collected in The Shepheards Oracles, has led to him being called a ‘Spenserian poet’ by David Norbrook (222). This designation makes sense in relation to this Caroline work. The latter work mentioned, with its anti-Laudian satire, is well in keeping with a tradition of Spenserian anti-clericalism that was well defined by the 1630s and 1640s. It was, after all, parliament that arraigned Archbishop Laud: royalism, or more accurately ‘moderate’ Protestantism, was not incompatible with radical political action.

[7]  However, the problem with this prevailing critical construction of Quarles is that while it quite properly draws attention to the fact that he was working within a defined poetic and ideological tradition, it is based on an artificially narrow reading of his poetic canon, one that focuses almost exclusively on his later Caroline works. Naturally, this reading is to the detriment of his Jacobean poetry. Certainly Quarles was a central and widely read voice during the first part of the Civil War, and to this end Hill’s construction of him as a ‘moderate’ Protestant is correct. This designation accurately reflects a wide range of religio-political opinion in early modern England, one that is no less interesting for being less obviously radical than other more militant groupings at the time. But his characterisation of this strand of opinion as ‘middle-of-the-road Calvinist Anglican’ is both inaccurate and unhelpful. For one, it implies that Quarles’ work is implicitly uncritical of prevailing religio-political orthodoxies. Just as this is incorrect in respect of his Caroline writings, so it is false in relation to the work he produced under James. Secondly, it implies a broad ‘Anglican’ consensus within the Jacobean church. But as we have seen, the crisis of the late Jacobean years brought to the fore faultlines that had always existed within the Church of England, faultlines that were thrown into sharp focus by the Arminian emergence that Quarles was to so sharply criticise later. If anything it was the Arminians who were the ‘Anglicans’ of the period, if the retrospective nature of this designation is to be maintained. Indeed, many of those who leaned towards Arminianism supported James’ pacific policy while also favouring forms of worship that were often described as ‘popish’. This is crucial. While Quarles is unambiguously Calvinist in his theological outlook and thus impeccably anti-Arminian, his Jacobean work does share with the Arminians a scepticism towards the bellicose rhetoric of the militants and an assertion of pacific values. It thus places his poetry at an important distance from the Jacobean Spenserians, as it does from his later Caroline royalism. Jacobean and Caroline Quarles need to be viewed through distinct lenses. This also problematizes any easy political distinctions between moderate and militant Protestantism: there was considerable slippage between the two positions.

[8]  As this last point makes clear, the central problem with the dominant critical reading of Quarles is the use of the term ‘Spenserian’ to describe his ideological outlook. This designation relies too heavily upon the work he produced during the Caroline period. Certainly some of his later poetry utilises the pastoral mode and expresses criticisms of church and court that many of the Spenserians would readily agree upon. But to only view his work in this light of his Caroline adoption of Spenserian tropes is inaccurate and it unhelpfully skews the import of his earlier work. The majority of Quarles’ published writings, Jacobean and Caroline, are in fact religious in subject and didactic in tone. These may not be the most appealing generic modes to modern readers but they are a fairer refection of the kind of writer that Quarles was. To dismiss his Jacobean works as inordinately long, diffuse and mere ‘pious light reading’ as Holtgen does, is to ignore the political aim of these works as well as the kinds of political interventions that ‘moderate’ Protestants were capable of making in the literary arena.

[9]  So in what follows, I want to redress the critical balance by looking again at Quarles’ Jacobean poetry. The Jacobean Spenserians undoubtedly had didactic aims and their works certainly dealt with religion, but they did this in noticeably different ways to Quarles during the crisis years of James’ last years. The fact remains that Quarles’ identifiably ‘Spenserian’ writings represent a minority of his output and they are confined to the Caroline part of his writing career. This is not to downplay their importance but rather to place them within a revised context. He is a Spenserian poet in some ways but he departs from Spenserian ideology in others. From the publication of his first poem A Feast for Wormes in 1620, a paraphrase on the book of Jonah, most of the poems he produced up to 1625 were biblical paraphrases. Indeed, he did not significantly depart from this biblically oriented, didactically minded aesthetic throughout his literary career. For this reason, Quarles’ Jacobean poetry is, in fact, more accurately representative of his literary output and his religio-political views across his entire writing career than the Spenserian pastoral work of the Caroline period. This poetry helps us to revise and expand upon his retrospective designation as a Spenserian poet. His first poem appears at the height of the Jacobean crisis in 1620 and it is a direct response to and engagement with that crisis. His subsequent biblical verse paraphrases carry on in that vein. Despite their didactic tone, the poems include some noticeably sharp, indeed at times radical, political critique of the political institutions and discourses of the period. In fact, it is Quarles’ poetry that might prove the most genuinely ‘popular’ literary manifestation of widely held, moderate Protestant opinion on the political situation at the end of James’ reign.


[10] Quarles’ A Feast for Wormes (Quarles 1971: II, 1) was entered in the Stationer’s Register on 11th April 1620 (Transcript 1875-94: III, 313). This date is important since it situates the text within a period of extreme political volatility both in England and on the European continent. After Frederick’s acceptance of the Bohemian crown in 1619, there were intense diplomatic efforts between the Protestant Union and the Catholic League to avoid war and find a peaceful settlement that would satisfy all sides (cf. Bromham and Bruzzi 1990: 58-59). It was unclear at this point whether these negotiations would work, although militant opinion in England was unsurprisingly sceptical. It is in this context that Quarles first enters the literary arena. And he does so with a number of statements of ideological intent. In the first place, the poem is dedicated to Robert Sidney, Viscount Lisle. Not only was Lisle the brother of Sir Philip Sidney, he was heir to the Sidney brand of militant Protestantism and aligned with the anti-Spanish party that included the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot and William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke. In his dedication, Quarles mentions that he accompanied Sidney ‘in your passage thorow [sic] Germany’ (Quarles 1971: II. 5). In fact, this refers to a delegation, of which Quarles was a part, sent by King James in 1613 to accompany the newly married Frederick and Elizabeth to Heidelberg. By invoking this triumphant event, Quarles invites his readers to read the poem in the context of Bohemian politics. Indeed, he ends the dedication to the reader with a tag in Spanish, ‘He leuado le Golpe, Dios sea con ella.’ This roughly translates as ‘high him blow, God be with her’. There is no particular reason for this tag to be here. Might it be read as an invocation, ironically in the tongue of the Hapsburg aggressor, to protect both Frederick and Elizabeth in their present dangers?

[11]  Quarles continues to position himself in the prefatory material to the poem proper. In the ‘Proposition of the whole Work’ he writes:

Tis not the Record of Great HECTOR’S Glory
Whose matchlesse Valour makes the World a Story;
Nor yet the swelling of that Roman’s Name,
That only Came, and Look’d, and Ouercame;
Nor One, nor All of those braue Worthies Nine,
(Whose Might was Great, and Acts almost Diuine,
That liu’d like Gods, but died like men, and gone)
Shall giue my Pen a Taske to treat vpon:            (A Feast, ‘Proposition’, 1)

We are offered an anti-heroic litany of what the poem will not be. The valour of Hector as reflected in Homer’s Iliad is rejected, perhaps with a nod to that hero’s ignominious death. The ‘swelling’ Roman, Julius Caesar, is disavowed, as are the nine worthies, also known for their military prowess. If this poem is to invoke military/militant ideals then it will be on different terms to these. This fact is invoked through a clever manipulation of metrics. The first couplet is written in iambic pentameter, the stock in trade of epic verse such as Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. But notice that Quarles constructs the lines in eleven syllables. He could provide a final twelfth syllable that would make the couplet an alexandrine, as for example Spenser does in the last book and canto of The Faerie Queene (cf. Spenser 2007: 711). By tacking on an extra unstressed syllable at the end of each line, the opening lines do not end in the affirmative stress offered by the masculine force of the heroic couplet but rather with that extra half stress provided by a feminine ending (trochaic words like glory/story are contrasted with masculine monosyllables or anapests such as name/overcame that end the following couplet). This is a falling off that can be read both formally and ideologically.

[12] The couplet is thus located in the space between the ‘English’ heroic couplet and the alexandrine measure associated with French epic romance, an avowedly anti-heroic move. Or rather, it is a move that opens the space for a different kind of heroic discourse. The ‘Proposition’ continues:

I sing the praises of the King of Kings,
Out of whose mouth, a two edg’d Smiter springs;
Whose Words are Mystery, whose Works are Wonder,
Whose Eyes are Lightening, & whose Voice is Thunder;


’Tis He that turn’d the waters into Blood,
And smote the Rocky stone, and caus’d a Flood:     (A Feast, 9-18)

The poem’s typological focus will be on Christ, but it is a Christ who is apocalyptically constructed from a variety of tropes drawn from the book of Revelation (1:12-18). The heroism of this poem, such as it is, distances itself from the secular discourses of epic in favour of the realm of biblically sanctioned eschatology where Christ is ‘More bright then mid-day Phoebus’ (A Feast, ‘Proposition’ 21).[2]  Indeed, when the ‘Introduction’ reads Nineveh in relation to that archetypal city of apocalyptic destruction, ‘great Babylon’ (A Feast, 7), the exegetical priorities of the text become clear.[3]

[13]  Like Quarles’ other paraphrases of biblical texts, the poem is divided into sections, with an ‘Argument’ providing a poetic amplification of the biblical story and a ‘Meditatio’ offering a moral/didactic reading of the story’s implications. The story of Jonah is particularly apposite to the religio-political context within which the poem is written. Jonah is commanded by God to go to Nineveh to preach condemnation upon the city. He resists and flees to another land by sea. While on the boat a storm erupts and Jonah is cast over the side into the belly of a whale. God spares him and he resolves to go to Nineveh. But his preaching does not result in the destruction of the city and Jonah is left to wonder at the mysteries of God’s providential power. On the one hand the story could be read as an exaltation to intervene in the internal politics of other nations. Jonah is initially sceptical but once he has suffered he is willing to go abroad to do God’s work. But on the other hand, his preaching does not lead to the expected punishment of the Ninevites and their destruction. In the Bible, Jonah takes this fact with ill grace: the poem, however, prefers to reflect upon the risks of foreign intervention and offer various religious and political criticisms. In this way, the story could equally be read as a warning on the folly of interfering in the affairs of other countries. The poem makes much of this exegetical tension.

[14]  The first point to note about the text is its avowedly Calvinistic assertions on God’s grace and providence. In the first meditation, the speaker notes that God ‘will send the brightness of his Grace to those / That grope in darkness, and his Grace oppose’ (A Feast, 115). As Calvin frequently notes grace is an unmerited gift from God bestowed freely upon sinners: ‘upon grace alone the heart of man can rest’ (Calvin 1961: 550). The poem also stresses that God’s apparent failure to punish Nineveh as Jonah wishes is an affirmation of his providential power. In answer to the question ‘Is God like one of vs? Can hee / When he hath said it, alter his decree?’, the speaker argues that ‘In God, to change his Will, and will a Change, / Are divers things: When he repents from ill, / He wills a change; he changes not his Will’ (A Feast, 1140). Certainly this argument could be dismissed as a torturously irrational defence of the indefensible. But it becomes rather more significant when we compare the picture given here of an immutable God who resists destroying Nineveh with the comments throughout the poem on the perils of interfering in the affairs of foreign nations. The omnipotent Calvinist God whose decrees are absolute and, in this case, pacific, could also be read as an affirmation of Jacobean monarchical absolutism with a pacific bent.

[15]  Throughout, the poem actually seems to sympathise with Jonah in his initial refusal to go to Nineveh. Jonah says:

The City’s great,
And mighty Ashur stands with deadly threat;
Their harts are hardened, that cannot heare:
Will greene wood burne, when so vnapt’s the seire?
Strange is the charge: Shall I goe to a place
Vnknowne, and forraine?             (A Feast, 171)

In the context of early 1620 when the question of foreign intervention in the Palatinate was still being debated, these lines offer a warning to the militaristic aspirations of the militant Protestant wing. The reference to ‘mighty Ashur’ and his ‘deadly threat’ may connote the power of Spain and the Catholic League, whose ‘harts are hardened’ with impious religion. That such allegorical decoding was commonplace at the time is confirmed by Thomas Cogswell when he notes that James’ failure to intervene militarily ‘ensured, as some Englishmen bitterly remarked, that the Promised Land was the Palatinate, not Palestine’ (1989b: 115). The fact that Nineveh is called the ‘the World’s Imperiall throne’ (A Feast, 1123) is significant here: if Nineveh is to be read as the Palatinate, then as a realm now under the ‘Imperial’ control of Catholic might, the reader is left to question how this force might be successfully opposed. Indeed, it is the question ‘Will greene wood burne, when so vnapt’s the seire?’ that is the most pressing in this context. In 1620, it was doubtful that Britain’s naval force was adequately equipped for a sustained war on foreign soil. The reference to the burning of ‘greene wood’ can be read as a comment on the likely fate of poorly constructed ships venturing abroad from England, a ‘seire’ that is ‘vnapt’ or ill-prepared for war.

[16]  The poem also contains a number of critiques of improper courtly, political and religious conduct. In the case of the former two, bribes are condemned (A Feast, 65, 158) and the proper application of justice and fair trade are also revealed as concerns (A Feast, 151-162). While this undoubtedly has a didactic/moralising aim, it is significant that the opening sessions of the 1621 parliament were dedicated to addressing precisely such matters (cf. O’ Callaghan 2000: 193-199). Nonetheless, it is the critique of religious policy that occupies the most space. For one, there are numerous allusions to the misuse of altars such as the line ‘My Altars cease to smoake; their holy fires/ Are quencht, and where prayers should, there sinne aspires’ (A Feast, 71). I would argue that these words allude to the controversies between the Calvinists and Arminians concerning the place and function of the altar in worship. For the Arminians, the Calvinist emphasis on the word preached from the pulpit by the minister was in danger of overshadowing the sacramental centrality of the mass and its rituals. Because of this, the Arminians tended to privilege the altar over the pulpit, often moving the altar to a position of greater prominence within the church. But the critique goes further than ceremonial disagreements. In meditation nine, the speaker condemns the actions of the Ninevites in covering themselves with sackcloth and ashes after Jonah’s condemnation, calling them ‘tricks to purchase heau’nly grace’ (A Feast, 1228):

Such holy madness God reiects, and loathes,
That sinkes no deeper, than the skinne, or cloathes;
’Tis not thine eyes which (taught to weepe by art)
Looke red with teares, (not guilty of thy hart)
’Tis not the holding of thy hands so hye,
Nor yet the purer squinting of thine eyes,
’Tis not your Mimmick mouthes, your Antick faces,
Your Scripture phrases, or affected Graces,
Nor prodigall vp-banding of thine eyes,
Whose gashfull balls doe seeme to pelt the skyes;


Such Puppit-playes, to heauen are strange, and quaint.    (A Feast, 1237-1255)

The false repentance of the Ninevites is figured in terms that would have resonated directly for a Protestant readership in 1620: each of the criticisms levelled at the Ninevites is a common contemporary accusation made by Calvinists, moderate and militant alike, against false outward Arminian worship. The fact that Arminianism was often characterised as crypto-Papist by its opponents gives this attack a double edge. It can be read as casting doubt upon the commitment of Ninevah/the Palatinate to the Protestant cause while also assailing those who veer from ‘true’ Protestantism back home. This section neatly demonstrates the way in which both national and international politics were interwoven in literary commentary of this period.

[17]  The attack also has a clearly defined political aim. This can be seen in the following passage that follows a section exploring Jonah’s fate in being cast off the boat by the sailors, and that then turns to a more general lamentation:

O righteous Isr’el, where, O, where art thou?
Where is thy Lampe? Thy zealous Shepheard now?
Alas! the rau’nous Wolues will worr’ thy Sheepe;
Thy Shepheard’s carelesse, and is fall’n asleepe;
Thy wandring flocks are frighted from their fold,
Their Shepheard’s gone, and Foxes are too bold:
They, they whose smooth-fac’d words became the Altar,
Their works discent, and first begin to faulter;
And they, that should be Watch-lights in the Temple,
Are snuffes, and want the oyle of good example;       (A Feast, 409-418)

There is no direct biblical source in Jonah for these words, and so the reader is invited to read them in a broader contemporary context. Rather than simply lamenting Nineveh, the speaker turns his gaze more generally onto Israel. These lines are also double edged: when the speaker laments for the ‘zealous Shepheard’ who has ‘fall’n asleep’ and allowed his sheep to be attacked by the ‘rau’nous Wolues’, the tropes, though biblically sourced, are conventional mainstays of early modern anti-Catholic rhetoric. Read in this light, the ‘Sheapheard’ is Frederick and the ‘Wolues’ are his Catholic opponents. However, the language used here is also central to the discourse of pastoral, which in the Spenserian tradition was often appropriated for anti-Catholic ends. Read in this light, Israel could stand as a synonym for Britain, constructing the careless ‘Sheapheard’ as James who has allowed the Arminian ‘Foxes’, to many Calvinists no better than Catholics, to abuse the ‘Altar’ and the ‘Temple’ and to sow ‘discent’. This reading makes sense when we consider Quarles’ scepticism regarding the more extreme militaristic ideology propagated by the militant wing of Protestant opinion during this period. As David Norbrook explains, ‘the Arminians tended to favour peace with Spain and disliked Calvinist predestinarianism’ (155).[4] This explains why Quarles goes after the Arminians so vociferously: while he is a Calvinist predestinarian, he is also, like the Arminians, sceptical of the bellicose martial ideology of the militant Protestants. So in order to protect himself from charges of Arminian/crypto-Papist sympathies at home or abroad, the stridently Calvinistic tone and polemical critique of the Arminians that we find throughout A Feast for Wormes is necessary. This demonstrates that Quarles is a poet who is not afraid to depart from prevailing orthodoxies. He is a pro-Calvinist but is also pro the king’s pacific policy; he is anti-Catholic and anti-Arminian, but he is sharply critical of where he thinks the established Church has gone wrong.

[18]  Quarles’ next poem, Hadassa (Quarles 1971: II, 37-66), a paraphrase on the book of Esther, was entered in the Stationer’s Register on 10th January 1621 (Transcript 1875-94: IV, 9). As was well known by this date, James intended to recall Parliament for the first time since 1614 and he did so on 30th January 1621. The King was aiming to win parliament round to his policy of pacific negotiation with other European powers, to gain important cash subsidies and to do something to alleviate the dire state of the economy. Parliament, dominated as it was by militant Calvinists, had other ideas. Although the initial sessions dealt relatively successfully with various political abuses (including the impeachment of Francis Bacon) and granted the King some of the money he asked for, it was not long before James and parliament clashed. A.A. Bromham and Zara Bruzzi have argued that the central issue that caused the King to dismiss parliament at the end of the year was ‘freedom of speech’ (86). However, an examination of parliament’s petition to the king reveals that the argument for free speech was in fact a pretext for insisting upon a precisely defined set of religio-political views, many of which impinged directly upon the royal prerogative.

[19]  The petition opens by arguing that the ‘subversion of religion’ by ‘princes of different religion’ was in danger of stirring up ‘ill-affected subjects at home, the popish recusants’ and re-establishing the ‘ambition of the Pope of Rome and his dearest son’ (‘Petition’ 1944: 307). The parliamentarians urged James to ‘take your sword into your own hand’ and to ‘avow the aiding of those of our religion in foreign parts; which doubtless would reunite the princes and states of the union, by these disasters disheartened and disbanded.’ For the petitioners, national and international security were intimately connected and depended not just upon defending Protestantism at home and abroad but on actively proselytising on its behalf. This is why the document suggests that James ‘should not ‘rest upon a war in these parts only [i.e. the Palatinate]’, a dangerous excursion into matters reserved for the royal prerogative (309). The King duly rejected the petition for presuming to ‘meddle’ with ‘deep matters of state’ but it is clear that the militant line expressed by parliament could not be squared with King’s avowed pacific polity and that divisions were becoming increasingly entrenched (310).

[20]  Therefore, Quarles’ poem was written and published at another crossroads in late Jacobean religious and political discourse. As with A Feast for Wormes, the prefatory material offers a number of clues as to the poem’s ideological positioning. It is dedicated to James and the title page carries the motto ‘By peace plenty: by wisdome peace’, a rather unsubtle invocation of James’ pacific and Solomonic pretentions. More interestingly, the title page contains a quotation from Horace’s sixth Ode: ‘Conamur tenues, grandia; nec pudor, / Imbellique Lyrae Musa potens vetat’ (Horace 1973: 29).[5] In order to unpick the significance of this quotation, it is necessary to return it to its proper context. This particular ode begins by invoking ‘That eagle of Homeric wing’ and the ‘courage and conquests’ of various battles. But this militaristic orientation is soon undercut:

But I’m not strong enough to try
Such epic flights. For themes as high
As iron Achilles in his savage pique,
Crafty Ulysses homing
After long ocean roaming,
Or Pelops house of blood, my wings feel weak;     (7-12)

And after this anti-heroic disavowal come the lines that Quarles quotes:

And both my modesty and my Muse,
Who tunes her lyre to peace, refuse             (13-14)

And then follow the lines that any educated reader would have known came next:

To let me tarnish in the laureate’s part
Our glorious Augustus’
Or your own battle-lustres
With my imperfect and unpolished art.         (15-18)

Just as James liked to compare himself to Augustus who, according to one reading of Roman history, initiated a time of universal peace and prosperity, so by invoking this particular Horatian Ode, Quarles is quite clearly setting himself up as the poet of peace who will not indulge in the ‘epic flights’ associated with the Spenserian tradition. The fact that Horace was known in early modern England as a poet who supported Augustus and who was sceptical of republicanism sets Quarles at a further ideological remove from the Jacobean Spenserians, many of whom were interested in precisely that dangerous republican territory (cf. Norbrook 2002: 200-201). Indeed, it is interesting to note that a translation of Horace’s Odes was entered in the Stationer’s Register just a couple of months after Quarles’ poem in 1621: he was clearly not the only contemporary writer who felt the need for the particular political resonances associated with the Roman poet.

[21]  But Quarles’ support for the policy of monarchical pacifism does not preclude the strain of apocalypticism that we observed in his first poem. The apocalyptic language of the books of Jeremiah, Isaiah and Daniel are invoked in the ‘Introduction’, and the fall of Babylon is conjured:

Woe, woe, and heauy woes ten thousand more
Betide great Babylon, that painted whore;
Thy buildings, and thy fensiue Towers shall
Flame on a sudden, and to cinders fall.              (Hadassa, ‘Introduction’, 13)

The inference is clear: Catholic political and militaristic might will fall, but this will be down to the intervention of God, not man. Quarles goes on to list a series of biblical and ancient Kings including Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Cyrus and Cambyses, all of whose reigns ended in failure. This sets the scene for the poem proper when the reign of the biblical King Assuerus is described as a time when the people ‘softly began to grumble, sore to vexe’ (Hadassa, I. 9). As this detail is extra-biblical, it seems that Quarles is using poetic license to draw contemporary parallels between his biblical text and contemporary politics.

[22]  But if these parallels are left to the reader to make, the ‘Meditation’ on section four is rather more directive. Ostensibly, this ‘Meditation’ should offer a comment on Esther being chosen by King Assuerus as his consort. Yet there can be no mistaking the very contemporary resonance of the verse:

The strongest Arcteries that knit and tye
The members of a mixed Monarchy,
Are learned Councels, timely Consultations,
Rip’ned Aduice, and sage Deliberations;
And if those Kingdomes be but ill-be-blest,
Whose Rule’s committed to a young man’s brest;
Whose choicest Councellors but Children are:
How many Kingdomes blest with high renowne,
(In all things happy else) haue plac’d their Crowne
Vpon the temples of a childish head,
Vntill with ruine, King, or State be sped!
What Massacres (begun by factious iarres,
And ended by the spoile of ciuill warres)
Haue made braue Monarchyes vnfortunate,
And raz’d the glory of many a mighty State?
How many hopefull Princes (ill-aduis’d
By young, and smooth-fac’d Councell) haue despis’d
The sacred Oracles of riper yeeres,
Till deare Repentance washt the Land with teares!     (Hadassa, IV. 1)

The praise of ‘sage’ counsel and the stinging critique of ‘young’ men whose ‘childish head’ the state has unwisely crowned is surely a criticism of the King’s controversial favourite George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. In 1621, Buckingham was firmly in favour of a Spanish match and anti-war, placing him in opposition to the ‘sacred Oracles of riper yeeres’ of militants such as Pembroke and Abbot. Given Buckingham’s closeness to Prince Charles as well, the line about ‘hopefull Princes (ill-aduis’d / By young, and smooth-fac’d Councell)’ is more than a conventional expression of the speculum tradition that presumed to advise princes. This is, in fact, direct and radical political critique from the self-styled ‘vngarnisht Quill’. When he says in section 16 that ‘Fragile is the trust repos’d on Troopes of Horse’ (Hadassa, XVI. 37), the poet is not just warning against intervention abroad: it is also a less than subtle dig at Buckingham who was, amongst other things, Master of the King’s Horse.

[23]  In case the point is missed, Quarles invokes Rehoboam, the ‘lucklesse, and succeeding Son / Of (wisdom’s Fauourite) great Solomon’ (Hadassa, IV. 21), a clear reference to James as Solomon and his son Charles, whose predilection for ‘rash, and beardlesse Councell’ (Hadassa, IV. 23) threatens the political security of the state. He also recalls the ‘second Richard’ (Hadassa, IV. 27), a monarch whose reign and deposition resonated throughout early modern political and literary discourse with alacrity. Quarles covers his back (and abandons any attempt at coding his message) by praising ‘glorious Brittaine’, the ‘sacred Sou’raigne’ and the ‘wise Assembl’ of Priuy Councels’ (Hadassa, IV. 33, 43, 44), but the criticism remains. This is a demonstration of how far moderate Jacobean Protestantism is prepared to go in criticising those in power. In this at least, Quarles and the Spenserians share a common agenda.

[24]  The next poem, Iob Militant (Quarles 1971: II. 67-98), emerged a few years later in 1624. Its entry for 13th October of that year in the Stationer’s Register comes just six days after another text by the poet John Taylor entitled Brittaines Joy, for the happy Arriuall of Prince CHARLES and on the same day as an anonymous text called The Joyfull returne of Prince CHARLES (Transcript 1875-94: IV, 67-68: cf. Cogswell 1989a). As the title of these texts makes clear, much had happened politically in the intervening years. In 1623, Prince Charles and Buckingham had gone to Spain in order to persuade the Infanta and her Father into a marriage settlement. But the mission ended in failure and both men returned to Britain to the acclaim evoked in the titles above. The majority of the population were deeply relieved that there would be no Spanish match, a fact that reveals how deeply entrenched anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic sentiment was in late Jacobean England, especially since the King had suspended the Catholic Penal Laws in 1622/23 (cf. Robinson 2006: 223). More startlingly, Charles and Buckingham reversed their previous policy and now argued for war with Spain and intervention on behalf of beleaguered Protestants on the European continent. As W.B. Patterson puts it, ‘James had not lost control of foreign and domestic policy, but he faced an extremely serious challenge’ (335). The King was faced by a newly united front arguing for war. He summoned parliament in February 1624 and in March argued for funds to pursue a war against England’s enemies. Quarles’ poem is dedicated to Prince Charles, and although the familiar tropes are in place in the prefatory material—the invocation of peace, the quotation from Horace’s Odes, the defence of divine poetry, the disavowal of imperial Roman history as a paradigm, and the not so coded references to Britain as ‘the afflicted nation’ (Iob Militant, ‘Proposition’, 5)—the tone of this poem is much more urgent. The story of Job and his suffering affords the poet the ideal space to discourse on a variety of contemporary issues and concerns and to offer a moderate response to the political situation.

[25]  With his undoubtedly sincere commitment to pacifism, in 1624 Quarles found himself in the odd position of being a moderate Protestant whose adherence to his monarch’s political principles placed him in a distinct minority. His dedication to Charles, speculative as it probably was, is also an attempt to wrest the previously pacific Prince back round to the religio-political views held by his father. Iob Militant (the title is deliberately ironic) has no doubts as to who is responsible for the crisis. Section two has a Machiavellian speech by Satan who claims:

I haue been practising mine old profession,
And come from compassing my large Possession,
Tempting thy sonnes, and (like a roaring Lion)
Seeking my prey, disturbe the peace of Sion;
I come from sowing Tares, among thy Wheate;
To him, that shall dissemble Peter’s Seate,
I haue been plotting, how to prompt the death
Of Christian Princes;                                                      (Iob Militant, II. 15)

Although this passage does draw upon chapter 2 of the book of Job, the references to civil discord and to the Pope are obviously not biblically sanctioned, and they offer a clear account of who is to blame for the present crisis. Like England, Job finds himself variously afflicted by foreign powers such as ‘A rout of rude Sabaeans’ (Iob Militant, III. 18) and ‘fierce Caldaeans’ (III. 34). More directly, the poem speaks about ‘mans righteous Pallate’ (V. 28) and asks a little later, ‘Can Pallates find a relish in distast?’ (VIII. 11). While the word ostensibly refers to Job’s taste, it is surely no coincidence that the word is a homonym of the common early modern term for the Palatinate.

[26]  The apocalypticism of the previous poems is maintained:

The secret disposition
Of sacred Prouidence is lockt, and seal’d
From man’s Conceit, and not to be reueal’d,
Vntill that Lambe breake ope the Seale, and come
With Life and Death, to giue the World her Doome.’       (IX. 28)

And when war is invoked as a positive virtue, it is in terms of the Erasmian trope of the militis Christiani: ‘Thy life’s a Warfare, Thou a Souldier art, / Satan’s thy Foe-man, and a faithfull Heart, / Thy two-edg’d weapon’ (VIII. 31). But despite these perhaps by now predictable moves, Quarles shows an important development in his thinking on the relative value of peace and how it is achieved:

The Ground-worke of our Faith, must not relie
On bare Euents: Peace and Prosperitie
Are goodly Fauours, but no proper Marke,
Wherewith God brands his Sheepe: No outward barke
Secures the body, to be sound within.
The Rich man liu’d in Scarlet, dyed in Sinne.         (IX. 33)

These lines argue that just as faith cannot be contingent upon worldly events, so peace cannot be valorised as an absolute good in this world since it is ultimately dependent upon God. Relying too much on ‘bare Euents’ to underwrite peace is, ultimately, a form of idolatry and this realisation underpins the social critique that follows.

[27]  The last years of James’ reign were beset by economic problems and food shortages. This is addressed directly in the following lines:

Some mooue their Land-markes, rob their neighbour flocks;
Others, in gage, receiue the Widowe’s Oxe;
Some grind the Poore, whilst others seeke the Prey;
They reape their Haruest, beare their Graine away;
Men presse their Oyle, and they distraine their Store,
And rend the Gleanings, from the hungry poore.
The Citie roares, the Blood, which they haue spent,
Cryes (vnreueng’d) for equall punishment         (XIII. 99)

However, social criticism of selfish landowners and food producers is not simply the result of class antagonism. The broader social good that should unite men is, according to Quarles, perverted at all levels of society. The good is not to be found ‘sainted in the Shrine of wealth’ (XIII. 31), and because ‘Honours are bought and sold, she rests not there [i.e. at court]’ (XIII. 26). Throughout society, the fetishisation of material idols is the central problem. As ‘Felicity’ comments at the end of this section: ‘My heart being virtuous, let my face be wan, / I am to God, I onely seeme to man’ (XIII. 47). The verse may see simple and direct political action subsumed by providential assertion, but as a moderate expression of Calvinist ‘plainness’ in the face of idolatry, it represents a sincere and probably widely held response to the social ills afflicting late Jacobean society.

[28]  The poem contains a number of laments by Job, and it is hard not to see these as offering a comment upon the position that James found himself in after the return of Charles and Buckingham. For example, Job recalls when ‘Offended Iustice sought my hands, for peace’ and ‘Princes kept silence (when I spake) to heare me’ (XV. 6, 8). But now Job finds himself politically and personally reduced: ‘I’m turn’d a laughing stock’ and ‘I’m vex’t abroad with flouts, at home with feares’ (XV. 21, 32). The poem ends, as it must, with the affirmation that Job ‘dyed in Peace, and full of Dayes’ (XIX. 112) as well as a paean to that ‘Great Salomon’ (XIX. 33) who was blessed with ‘long dayes of peace’ (XIX. 36). But while we might remark upon Quarles’ political consistency in this matter, the fact that this praise is couched in the past tense reflects the passing of a truly pacific Jacobean policy where the fact that the King is now a ‘laughing stock’ is a statement not so much of criticism but of political futility.

[29]  Quarles’ last Jacobean poem, Sions Elegies (Quarles 1971: I. 99-118), follows in the same vein as the others. Interestingly, it is dedicated to the Earl of Pembroke, the leader of the militant Protestant wing at court. As with his dedication to Charles though, this does not necessarily imply a shift in Quarles’ religio-political outlook. Rather it is another attempt to persuade those on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Sion is figured as an ‘Iland’ surrounded by a ‘troubled Ocean’ that is caught ‘Betwixt her home-bred, and her forrein foes’ (I. 2). Arminian worship is attacked: ‘Her Altars are defac’d’ and ‘Her Priests haue chang’d their Hymns to sighes and cries’ (I. 4); militaristic opportunist such as Buckingham are criticised: ‘Tyrant foemen doe aduance / Their craftie crests’ (I. 5); and idolatry is identified as an ongoing problem, with the ‘wasted Temple’ now ‘a Groue, for base Idolatrie’ (I. 10). Indeed, Quarles’ critique throughout is strikingly similar to Fulke Greville’s poem at the end of Caelica: ‘Sion lies waste, and thy Jerusalem, / O Lord, is fall’n to utter desolation’ (CIX. 1-2). Indeed, this poem may have been written not long after and with these events in mind (Norbrook 2002: 222-223). For moderate and high Calvinists alike, Sion/Jerusalem provided a paradigm for lamenting the political state of late Jacobean England. However, the concept of peace has shifted since A Feast for Wormes, from being an absolute ethical good, to being a state dependent upon God, to a concept that no longer seems attainable: ‘Where, where art thou, o sacred Lambe of peace’ (I. 21).

[30]  That said, in keeping with the dual focus of Quarles’ poetic critique that we have seen elsewhere, Sion/Jersusalem can also stand throughout the text for the Palatinate. For example, the conclusion to a sonnet in section four that states ‘Abroad, the Sword; Famin, at home destroyes thee’ (IV. 4) could, in 1624, equally apply to Britain as to the Palatinate. In other places, the allusions are clearly to the situation in the Palatinate. For example, when we are told in a sonnet in the second section that in Sion ‘out-law’d Princes lieu constrain’d, / Howrely to heare the name of Heauen profan’d and that ‘Manner and Lawes, the life of gouernment, / Are sent into eternall banishment’ (II. 9), this can only be a reference to the court of Frederick, in exile and awaiting intervention from overseas. The prophetic tone adopted throughout Sions Elegies allows Quarles to comment on the folly of military intervention while also offering a moderate Calvinistic answer to the question of how best to respond to the crisis:

Rent, and desposed from Imperiall state,
By heauen’s high Hand, on heauen we must awaite;
To him that struck, our sorrowes must appeale;
Where Heauen hath smit, no hand of man can heale;
In vaine, our wounds expected man’s reliefe,
For disappointed Hopes renew a Griefe;
Aegypt opprest vs in our fathers’ loynes,
What hope’s in Aegypt? Nay, if Aegypt ioynes
Her force with Iudah, our vnited powers,
Could ne’re preuaile ‘gainst such a Foe, as our’s;
Aegypt, that once did feel heauen’s scourge, for grieuing
His Flock, would now refined it, for relieuing.                             (IV. 17)

Quarles follows conventional Calvinist providential logic in suggesting that if God is responsible for the current state of Sion/the Palatinate, then it is only correct to wait for God to intervene and put things right. Yet what is significant about this elegy is that providentialism informs a political reading, or rather warning, against intervening and provoking the might of the Catholic League. In early modern discourse, ‘Egypt’ is a commonly deployed anti-Catholic synonym for Rome and the power of the Catholic Church. Quarles’ point implicates both the Palatinate and Britain. If ‘Aegypt’ (Rome) joined forces with ‘Iudah’ (Spain), the ‘vnited powers’ of international Protestantism ‘Could ne’re preuaile ‘gainst such a Foe’. Although this message is focused through a particular religio-political lens, it seems a much more measured and politically realistic assessment of the situation facing Britain in 1624. It may also be read as a subtle criticism of the prevailing political orthodoxy of the militant Protestants, including, perhaps, the man to whom Sions Elegies is dedicated.


[31]  In its own particular way, Quarles’ ‘moderate’ Protestant stance reveals a rather more complex and nuanced literary view of the religio-political picture in late Jacobean England than we might otherwise assume. While he shares many of the concerns and aims of the Jacobean Spenserians, his work departs from theirs at a number of crucial junctures. More than this, a reading of Quarles’ Jacobean poetry forces us to reassess the kinds of political interventions that poets were capable of making. By reorienting the Caroline reading of Quarles that has so dominated criticism of him, the fascinating early part of his literary career is revealed in all its political complexity. His Jacobean poetry demonstrates that moderate Protestant opinion was often no less vociferous in its criticisms of policy and social ills than other more obviously ‘radical’ writers. Quarles’ work may not have the theological complexity and formal elegance of George Herbert or the intellectual sophistication and dazzle of Andrew Marvell, but it is a body of writing that deserves to be more widely explored and studied than at present. His ‘vngarnisht Quill’ still has much to reveal about the religious politics of early modern England.

Queen’s University Belfast


[1] For more on this context, see Cogswell 1989a and Patterson 1997. [back to text]

[2] There is a similar metrical effect to the one noted in the opening couplet in the lines ‘Whose Words are Mystery, whose Works are Wonder, / Whose Eyes are Lightening, & whose Voice is Thunder.’ The caesura in each line combined with the anapaestic ‘mystery’ and ‘lightening’, and the trochaic ‘wonder’ and ‘thunder’ combine to render the couplet a feminine ended iambic tetrameter, despite its syllabic count. [back to text

[3] Quarles locates ‘high Armoenia’ in Babylon (A Feast, ‘Introduction’, 9), which may be a dig at the ‘high church’ ecclesiology of the Arminian faction. [back to text]

[4] From line 953, Quarles does seem to offer the outline of what might constitute a casus belli, a just war, albeit with a number of caveats. [back to text]

[5] The tag is in fact incorrectly transcribed and should read: ‘conamur, tenues grandia, dum pudor/ imbellisque lyrae Musa potens vetat’. This probably reflects Quarles’ working from memory and misremembering the quotation. [back to text]




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Jesuits and Philosophasters: Robert Burton’s Response to the Gunpowder Plot

Jesuits and Philosophasters: Robert Burton’s Response to the Gunpowder Plot

Kathryn Murphy

[1]  Robert Burton’s Latin play Philosophaster, performed in the hall at Christ Church, Oxford, on 16 February 1618, [1] has received more attention than most of the other surviving examples of university drama. [2] Since the mid-nineteenth century, Philosophaster has been published four times, once in Latin, twice with facing-page English translation, and once as a facsimile of a manuscript; it has even been performed. [3] Yet the same circumstances which have prompted sustained attention to the play have paradoxically hampered readings of the text on its own terms. Interest has been raised almost entirely by the later activities of its author: by the hope that Philosophaster’s satire on university life and false philosophy might inform the reader further about The Anatomy of Melancholy. As a result the play’s own circumstances and satirical targets have been imperfectly understood. Its topicality has been ignored, and its importance for our understanding of Burton’s writing thus paradoxically underestimated.[4] This essay hopes to put some of these omissions right.

[2]  The title-page declares that Philosophaster is a ‘Comoedia Nova’ or new comedy, in the tradition of Plautus and Terence.[5] It includes extensive borrowings from the texts of their plays, as well as various generic elements of the tradition: the clever servant, a prostitute, the theft of property, a concluding restitution and marriage among them. Philosophaster also stands in a venerable comedic tradition of mocking false philosophy and pedagogy, and fraudulent claims to learning, inaugurated by Aristophanes’ Clouds and alive in contemporary university drama and on the London stage in plays such as Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, or Jonson’s Alchemist or Poetaster. In Philosophaster, Desiderius, Duke of Osuna in Andalusia, has established a university in the town. Hoping to receive the benefits offered by the Duke to attract scholars to his new institution, a crowd of pseudo-philosophers, quacks, and mountebanks arrives, with a train of pimps and whores. Through disguise and trickery, they fool the Duke and the locals into taking them for scholars. Most of the play consists of a series of scenes in which the philosophasters con or flummox the townsfolk and local gentry with their pseudo-philosophy and jargon. The central narrative follows the fleecing of the noblemen Stephanio and Polupistos (whose name means ‘gullible one’) by Polupragmaticus, the ringleader of the philosophasters and his servant Aequivocus. Stephanio’s son Antonio, a new student at the university, is seduced from his studies by Aequivocus and falls in love with Camaena, apparently a prostitute. Into this chaos, Polumathes and Philobiblos, two true scholars, arrive, and expose the philosophasters. The Duke, beset by complaints and petitions from townsfolk and gentry, realises the corruption of the university and threatens to disband it; he is persuaded by Polumathes to brand and banish the worst offenders instead, and restore the university to true scholarship. In the comic resolution, the stolen money is restored to its owners, Camaena is revealed to be the daughter of Polupistos, and she and Antonio marry. The play ends with the remaining characters singing a ‘hymn in praise of philosophy’, ‘to the tune of Bonny Nell’ (197).

Oxford and Osuna
[3] The assumption that Burton’s satiric spleen must, in Philosophaster, be directed at the same targets which exercise him in the Anatomy has led to a universal assumption that Osuna is a ‘thinly disguised Oxford’ (Gowland 2006: 7), since only ‘[i]n this way Burton could indulge an academic taste for self-satire without fear of touching things too close to home’ (O’Connell 1986: 12). It is certainly true that in presenting a play about pseudo-philosophers and the corruption of learning in a university, with a cast of students, before an audience mostly consisting of their teachers and peers, Burton exploited immediate context as a source of humour. [6] Alternating scenes contrast town and gown; the prostitutes discuss whether students or townsfolk are better lovers, and come down firmly in favour of the former. ‘[D]ear old Oxford’ receives direct mention in Polumathes’s account of his travels in England, and he reports his experience of the Bodleian, finding in it ‘many dead [men], badly held by chains’; he complains however that he ‘saw no living wise men there’ (61).[7] The characters of Theanus, an aged college functionary who no longer knows his subject but grows rich by tutoring the sons of gentry, and Pedanus, who obtains two benefices through ‘meddling in politics and criticism’ (29), must have seemed to the audience familiar types, if not identifiable caricatures. Burton himself acknowledges the potential contextual piquancy in the epilogue: ‘If any here thinks himself too harshly inveighed | Let him know that the wicked, not the good, are attacked’ (199).

[4] To argue on this basis that Philosophaster’s ‘main satiric thrust, that pseudolearned charlatans find a ready haven in a university, is meant to find its general target in Oxford’ (O’Connell 1986: 93) is however to ignore some very pointed differences between the two universities. Though it has been suggested that Osuna was chosen by Burton for its phonetic similarity to Oxford (Burton 1931: 7), it is not an imaginary place, and Burton repeatedly reminds his audience exactly where it is: a small town near Seville in Andalusia, where a university had been founded in 1548. Pedro Girón, third Duke of Osuna as Burton was writing and revising his play, would have been a familiar figure to the audience: he was internationally famous for his military exploits in the Spanish Netherlands, in particular his role in the siege of Ostend. He is rumoured to have visited James VI and I, and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, in 1604, two years before the composition of Philosophaster, though his most recent biographer finds no evidence to support the tradition (Linde 2005: 53).

[5] On arriving in Osuna, Philobiblos asks Polumathes what he makes of the town, since he has visited ‘the distinguished universities in all parts of the world’. Polumathes is full of praise, which Philobiblos finds strange. After all, he asks, ‘is this not the region where once so many Arabs flourished?’ Polumathes agrees: ‘The very same. For while barbarism was raging through Europe, philosophy took refuge here’ (59). Polumathes points out that it was the Arabic scholars of Andalusia who preserved the heritage of Aristotle in Western Europe until the twelfth century. On the one hand, Polumathes rebukes Philobiblos’s narrow-mindedness, by suggesting that true philosophy is not sectarian, and was preserved in Muslim Spain while forgotten in Christian Europe. Yet this refusal of bigotry is ironically overlaid with a more complicated and topical reading of the religious politics of knowledge. It was through engagement with Latin translations of the Arabic writings of Averroës, a native of Andalusia, that Aristotle came to dominate the philosophy of the Medieval Latin West, particularly in the commentaries of Thomas Aquinas. Osuna is thus also associated with the scholastic philosophy dominant in Iberian universities in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

[6] That Burton wished to impress upon his readers the cultural significance of Osuna as a Spanish university is clear from the patriotic declaration of Sordidus, a native of the town: ‘I don’t doubt that within ten years we’ll see our little village much like Seville, Salamanca or Cordova’ (55): all Andalusian towns with large universities and centres of scholastic scholarship.[8] Salamanca in particular had been a centre of scholastic responses to humanism and the Reformation, supporting scholars such as Domingo de Soto (Dominicus Sotus), Martín de Azpilcueta (more commonly, and to Burton, known as Martinus Navarrus) and Francisco Suárez, all of whom Burton cites in the Anatomy (at III.411, 413, 425, 445; I.157; I.249, II.94, respectively). The Andalusian universities were associated not just with anti-humanism, but with Catholic resistance theory and support of the Pope against Protestant monarchs, particularly in the works of Navarrus, discussed later in this essay, and Suárez, who in 1613 published Defensio fidei Catholicae & Apostolicae adversus Anglicanae sectae errores, a defense of the Pope’s right to depose heretical monarchs, directed against James. In this context, Polumathes’s statement that ‘while barbarism was raging through Europe, philosophy took refuge here’ takes on a different valence. The deictic ‘here’, uttered in Christ Church, operates simultaneously in two contexts. Just as Osuna and southern Spain had preserved the Aristotelian tradition while the rest of Europe was barren of philosophy, Oxford must currently provide refuge from the barbarism of Catholic Europe. And if Europe is to be understood as barbaric in the present, then Polumathes’s open-minded attitude to Islamic learning becomes a bigoted attitude to Catholic universities. While a matter of patriotic pride for Sordidus, for the audience in Christ Church, the idea of another grand Iberian university cannot have been so welcome. Osuna is not simply an alibi for Oxford: it also provides a sharp foil and contrast.

The ‘dissociable society’: the genres of Jesuitism
[7]  The political and religious implications of Osuna are carried through in the characters of the philosophasters. The central pseudo-scholar is Polupragmaticus, who has a smattering of all the arts, while being master of none. We meet him in the first scene, organising the impostures of the other philosophasters, and throwing out bamboozling strings of technical terms from geometry, music, and metaphysics. Superficial polymathy is his particular offence against learning:

Let each one of you take care of his own duties. I’ll take care of mine. As bilingual, ambidexterous, and omniscient, I’ll boast of whatever I wish. […] I know every language, art, science, and consider it stupid either not to know or to hesitate. In a word, I’ll pretend to be a Jesuit.[9]

Though Polupragmaticus claims he is ‘pretending’ to be a Jesuit, in Burton’s ‘Argumentum’ he is identified straightforwardly as ‘Jesuita’ (26). This is repeated in the second scene, when Polupragmaticus is asked by Eubulus, the Duke’s aide, what his ‘special branch of learning’ is: ‘what school do you come from, the Peripatetic or Stoic? Are you a follower of Plato or Aristotle? Are you a Scotist, a Thomist, Realist, Nominalist, or something else?’ (47). In response, Polupragmaticus declares himself ‘a grammarian, a rhetorician, a geometrician, a painter, a wrestling coach, augur, rope walker, physician, magician. I know it all. Or if you prefer, I am a Jesuit. That sums it up’ (47).[10] This is not Burton’s most subtle writing, and its point is clear. Though Mordechai Feingold has suggested that Polupragmaticus may be a satire on the followers of Petrus Ramus (Feingold 2001: 151-2, 159), it seems highly unlikely that Burton would conceal a Huguenot martyr within the Society of Jesus. Just as Osuna is a university in the heartland of anti-Protestant scholasticism, so the central pseudo-philosopher is a Jesuit: not a character with whom any member of the audience in Christ Church could identify, certainly not openly.

[8]  So far, so comic: Burton’s stage Jesuit is a mountebank and trickster in the tradition of new comedy, crossed with common tropes of anti-Jesuit invective.[11] Submerged in Polupragmaticus’s role as magician is the anti-Catholic attack on priests as conjurors presiding over the hocus-pocus of transubstantiation.[12] When Simon Acutus asks why Polupragmaticus calls himself ‘Jesuit’, the response emphasises the rapaciousness of the stock-type: ‘What will this sort of man not dare? Do they not hasten to royal halls or to a woman’s chambers? What crimes remain untried? I’ll play the ruffin [‘Ruffinos’: ‘fiend, devil’], and I’ll play it to the hilt’ (45). Polupragmaticus is a threat both to comic resolution and to the integrity and morals of the state, to the chambers of both women and monarchs. Anti-Catholic propaganda often laid charges of sexual misconduct and lasciviousness at the doors of priests, which Burton repeats in the Anatomy. The typical Jesuit is ‘a notorious Bawd, & famous Fornicator, lascivum pecus, a very goat’ (AM 1.40), and the Jesuits play many ‘pranks’:

sometimes in their owne habits, sometimes in others, like souldiers, courtiers, cittizens, Schollers, Gallants, and women themselves. Proteus-like in all formes, and disguises, that goe abroad in the night, to inescate and beguile young women, or to have their pleasure of other mens wives: And if we may beleeve some relations, they have wardropes of severall suits in their Colledges for that purpose. Howsoever in publike they pretend much zeale, seeme to be very holy men, and bitterly preach against adultery, fornication; there are no verier Bawds or whoremasters in a country. (AM 3.135)

Burton here reuses elements of Aequivocus’s account of his master in Philosophaster:

Where does he not go? Here, there, everywhere he wanders at night, through every neighborhood of the city. And at all hours of the night, now dressed as a man, now as a woman, putting on all sorts of disguises — those of a bawd, a midwife, sometimes even a soldier. I think Proteus is not more mutable than he nor a fox more cunning or clever. (143)

Polupragmaticus in fact never appears as a bawd, midwife or soldier, but we are encouraged to think he might, and that the night is stalked by threatening figures any or all of whom might turn out to be a Jesuit in disguise.

[9] Simon Acutus is also characterised by this standard slander.[13] He closes the third act with a song in rhyming Latin which clearly recalls the form of medieval liturgies, associating him with a monastic environment:

Personatus ego,
Sic meipsum tego,
Vosque meae vestes,
Este mihi testes,

Esse merum pecus,
Et qui credit secus.
Fallitur hiho, hiho,
Fallaturque semper, io. (126, 128)

(I am in disguise| Thus I conceal myself. | And you, my clothes, | Be my witnesses, | He’s a mere sheep | Who believes otherwise. | He is mistaken hiho, hiho, | May he always be mistaken, io.’ Translation my own.)

The opening line may submerge a pun on the opening line of the hymn ‘Personent hodie’, sung during the Feast of the Holy Innocents (28 December). If so, Simon Acutus’s relish in his disguise parodies a hymn of praise for the incarnation, Christ clothing himself in human flesh and form. His song links the features of the stage mountebank and the Jesuit.[14]

[10]  The political and religious significance detected in Osuna as a site of Spanish scholasticism is thus underlined by the infiltration of the stage by Jesuits. In the Anatomy, Jesuits are ‘Monkes by profession’ and yet ‘a Machiavilian rout interested in all matters of state […] traitors, assasinats’ (AM 1.40-1). The Society of Jesus is a ‘dissociable society’ (AM 3.350), dedicated to undermining civic order (AM 3.37; 3.352). Though the reflex anti-Catholicism in passages of the Anatomy has been recognised (Mueller 1952: 65-75), its genealogical relation to Burton’s play has been ignored. Burton’s representation of the political threat of Jesuitism in the Anatomy shows the same generic hybrid we find in Philosophaster:

That scoffing Lucian conducts his Menippus to hell by the directions of that Chaldean Mithrobarzanes, but after long fasting, & such like idle preparation. Which the Jesuits right well perceiving, of what force this fasting and solitary meditation is, to alter mens mindes when they would make a man mad, ravish him, improve him beyond himselfe, to undertake some great businesse of moment, to kill a King or the like, they bring him into a melancholy darke chamber, where he shall see no light for many dayes together, no company, little meat, gastly pictures of Divels all about him, and leave him to lie as he will himselfe, on the bare floar in this chamber of meditation as they call it, on his backe, side, belly, till by his strange usage they make him quite mad & beside himselfe. And then after some ten daies, as they find him animated and resolved, they make use of him. The divell hath many such factors, many such engins. (AM 3.363)

A scene of such brainwashing is included in Richard Carpenter’s chamber comedy The Pragmatical Jesuit New-leven’d, which explicitly equates a ‘Mountebank with all his packs, and his knacks’ with ‘the Benedictine-Jesuite’ (Carpenter 1665: 20-1, 26-8, 59). As in John Donne’s Conclave Ignati (1611), which Burton owned, the devilish ploys of the Jesuits mimic Lucianic satire. Burton’s Jesuits are a generic amalgam, mingling the devils of such satire, the scoundrels of Roman New Comedy, the lascivious priests of revenge tragedy, and the stage mountebank.

‘To kill a King or the like’: Philosophaster’s occasion
[11] The editor of the first print edition of Philosophaster assumed that its spleen was directed against alchemy, and justified Burton’s careful dating of the stages of its composition—written in 1606, ‘alterata, renovata, perfecta’ in 1615, performed 16 February 1618—as a defence against comparison with Ben Jonson’s Alchemist (1610) (Burton 1862: xi-xii). The anxiety of Jonson’s influence has become a critical commonplace (Burton 1931: xii-xiv; Babb 1959: 64n.8; Burton 1984: 7; O’Connell 1986: 93-4; Burton 1993: 1-2). As some readers have recognised, however, alchemy plays only a minor role in Philosophaster’s satire (Bentley 1956: 100; Nochimson 1974: 98), and the more obvious target of Burton’s mockery—Jesuitism—provides a better reason for the ostentatious triple dating.

[12] Burton places the composition of Philosophaster in 1606, the year following the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot (5 November 1605), when the trial and execution of the conspirators and their Jesuit confessors took place. The theatricality of the Jesuit in the popular imagination was emphasised in the propaganda response to the Plot, and at the trial of Henry Garnet S.J. for treason in 1606. The lewdness which Burton ascribes to Polupragmaticus echoes that levelled against Garnet at his trial: he was accused of drunkenness and lechery, and fornication with Anne Vaux, who had harboured him. The royal proclamation of 15 January 1606 drew attention to the Jesuits’ ‘tendency to wear showy clothes “after the Italian fashion”’: the practical necessity of disguise for the Jesuits confirmed the caricature (Fraser 2002: 237, 287-90; 255, 344). Sir Edward Coke, the prosecutor at Garnet’s trial, used the tag ‘plus peccat Author quam Actor’ (‘the author sins more than the actor’) to emphasise his guilt, though he had taken no active part in the plot.  During Coke’s prosecution of the Gunpowder Plotters themselves, he had claimed the event as ‘a sine exemplo, beyond all examples, whether in fact or fiction, even of the tragick poets, who did beat their wits to represent the most fearful and horrible murders’. Coke’s imagery passed into the first commemorative sermon delivered on 5 November 1606 by Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Chichester, who claimed that ‘[Heathen men’s] Stories; nay, their Tragoedies can show none neer it. Their Poëts could never feigne any so prodigiously impious’ (Anon. 1679: 79; Andrewes 2005: 151; McCullough 2005: 395). Philosophaster, however, is not from the pen of a ‘tragick poet’; instead, it is an unusual comic response to the Gunpowder Plot and Garnet’s trial.

[13] Some clear signals of the contextual relevance appear in the final scene, in which the philosophasters are discovered, branded, and banished. Before judgement is passed, they are searched, and certain damning objects are found on them. Some, like cards and dice, give them away as fairground mountebanks. Others, however, expose their religion: a ‘pecten’ (used to comb the priest’s hair before Mass), ‘unguentum’ (‘ointment’, or the chrism used in various sacraments), ‘cantilenae’ (‘songs’—specifically various forms of medieval plainsong), and ‘pocula’ (‘cups’, or the chalices used in the Eucharist) (193). These are accoutrements of the Roman Catholic Mass, like the paraphernalia discovered in priest-holes during searches for co-conspirators after the Plot (Fraser 2002: 258). That the plotters’ Jesuit confessors had celebrated Mass with them before their attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament was condemned at their trials and in subsequent Gunpowder sermons (Andrewes 2005: 153; McCullough 2005: 397-8; Wills 1995: 36-7). Branding was a standard punishment inflicted on perjurers or thieves in the period. But the philosophasters are punished not just for their behaviour within the play, but also as their analogues.[15] They are branded on the cheeks with marks ‘in the shape of a wolf or an ape’ (193). The wolf was a standard symbol for Catholic priests, and especially for Jesuits, as in the ‘grim wolf with privy paw’ of Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ (Shell 1992: 125; Milton 2007: 252); the arms of St. Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuits’ founder, were flanked by two grey wolves (Le Comte 1950: 606). Thomas Dekker’s ‘The Picture of a Iesuite’ provides a further parallel, describing a figure ‘Mouth’d like an Ape, his innate spite | Being to mock Those hee cannot bite’ (Dekker 1606: sig. A3r). The branding includes further scope for allegory. Some of the Gunpowder Plotters had been injured in their flight by the accidental explosion of gunpowder at Holbeach House, where they had taken refuge (Fraser 2002: 222-3). Subsequent sermons took pleasure in the poetic justice of the firing of those who would have blown up Parliament, Andrewes observing that ‘God cast their owne powder in their faces, powdered them, and disfigured them with it’ (Andrewes 2005: 155; McCullough 2005: 400). Symbolic branding had also been meted out in a play performed on the Christ Church stage three days before Philosophaster. In Barton Holyday’s Technogamia, the false fortune-tellers Physiognomas and Cheiromantes are punished in ways appropriate to their fraudulent activities: the interpreter of men’s fates from their faces is burned in the face, from their hands in the hand (Holyday 1942: 104). Burton’s branding of the philosophasters more sinisterly mimics the providential and ironic revenge on the Gunpowder Plotters.

[14] Even Polupragmaticus’s name carries unmistakable signals of seditious Catholicism. The notion of ‘polupragmosunē’, or ‘being a busybody’, as a negative political or moral behaviour, and especially as the butt of comic opprobrium, was venerable (Ehrenberg 1947; Atkins 1976).[16] By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, ‘polypragmatic’ had taken on connotations of Catholic and especially Jesuit sedition, and was particularly associated with Robert Persons (sometimes Parsons), who had been attacked by both anti-Jesuit English Catholics and Protestants for his attempted influence in political affairs (Bagshaw 1601: sig. [A4]r; Persons 1602: ff.55v-56r; Morton 1610: 27; Persons 1612: sig. (n)1r; Mason 1613: 13; Crakanthorpe 1621: 190; Burton 1627: n.p.). Later in the century, the ‘pragmatical Jesuit’ was a stock figure, as the titles of Carpenter’s Pragmatical Jesuit, and Henry Care’s Character of a Turbulent, Pragmatical Jesuit and factious Romish priest (1678), testify. William Prynne could describe William Laud in 1640 as ‘this Polypragmatick [who] began to stirre and stickle both in Church and State’, relying on the Catholic connotations of the word to do their polemical work (Prynne 1640: sig. C4v).

[15] James himself associated the term specifically with refusal to take the Oath of Allegiance, which was a direct response to the Plot and made compulsory for all subjects by an Act of Parliament in 1606. The oath incorporated a denial of the Pope’s supremacy over the monarchy. In a speech delivered on 20 June 1616 in Star Chamber, he expressed his satisfaction with Roman Catholics who took the Oath, and reserved his enmity for ‘Polypragmaticke Papists’:

I would you would studie out some seuere punishment for them: for they keepe not infection in their owne hearts onely, but also infect others our good Subiects. And that which I say for Recusants [sc. those who refused to take the Oath of Allegiance], the same I say for Priests: I confesse I am loath to hang a Priest onely for Religion sake, and saying Masse; but if he refuse the Oath of Allegiance (which, let the Pope and all the deuils in hell say what they will) yet […] those that so refuse the Oath, and are Polypragmaticke Recusants; I leaue them to the Law; it is no persecution, but good Iustice. (James VI & I 1994: 223-4)

A ‘List of Persons Taking the Oath of Allegiance at Christ Church’ preserved in the Oxford University Archives and not, as far as I know, previously known to Burton scholars, shows that he took the oath of allegiance when it was imposed on the university in the summer of 1610 (OUA SP/E/6/1). The oath prompted an international debate throughout the remainder of James’s life: Burton owned several of the printed contributions to it, including Cardinal Bellarmine’s Apologia Matthaei Torti (1618), John Donne’s Conclave Ignati (1611), and the anonymous Deus et Rex, usually attributed to Richard Mocket (Kiessling 1988). The controversies were reflected in other academic plays: Risus Anglicanus, a Cambridge comedy dated after 1614 and ascribed to Samuel Collins, includes Bellarmine and Suárez as characters, while John Hacket’s Loiola, performed in Cambridge before James on 28 February 1622 and not printed until 1644, includes characters called Loiola, Pseudo-miraculum, and Aequivocatio, and testifies to the continued interest and use of explicitly anti-Jesuit tropes for royal entertainment throughout his reign (Brennan 1988).

[16] Burton’s revision and revival of Philosophaster in the 1610s is similarly fuelled by the heat of the continued polemic over the oath. He had already contributed to Alba, an earlier play, now lost, which was performed before James at Christ Church in 1605 (Nochimson 1970).[17] There is some evidence that Burton revised Philosophaster in expectation of a similar occasion, since Holyday’s Technogamia, performed three days before Philosophaster, brings before its Christ Church audience ‘What he prepared for our Platonique King: | Deeming Your iudgements able to supply | The absence of So Great a Maiesty’ (Holyday 1942: xxix, 4, 118). Though that hope was disappointed, it amplifies the importance of the later contexts of controversial response to the oath for Philosophaster. Burton’s loyalty to James is recorded in various passages in the Anatomy, retained in editions published after his death (AM I.75, I.320; Gowland 2006: 236, 268). Kenneth Fincham has observed that the king ‘expected Oxford scholars to defend [his] claims, for example against Rome over the oath of allegiance controversy’. Philosophaster’s use of anti-Catholic imagery and tropes shows Burton a willing defender of James’s ‘citadel of orthodoxy’ (Fincham 1997: 179, 188).

‘Faith, here’s an equivocator!’
[17] Even Polupragmaticus’s name is however not the most obvious signal in the play to Philosophaster’s topical concerns. His servant is called Aequivocus, in an unmistakable reference to the doctrine of equivocation, brought to prominence immediately before the composition of Philosophaster by Garnet’s trial, which prompted an ‘absolute obsession with the subject of equivocation in the minds of the public’ (Fraser 2002: 315). Garnet had not been directly involved in the Plot — indeed had tried to circumvent it — but was nonetheless tried for treason in March and April 1606, and hanged, drawn and quartered on 3 May. Much use was made in the trial of the discovery of a manuscript ‘Treatise of Equivocation’ in the rooms of Sir Thomas Tresham in Westminster, whose son was involved in the conspiracy (Fraser 2002: 290-5). The manuscript used at the trial and annotated by Coke survives in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Laud MS misc. 655). A second copy in the English College at Rome is reported missing by Fraser (2002: 291). Like Coke, the nineteenth-century editor of the ‘Treatise’, David Jardine, thought the author anonymous, and identified Garnet’s hand only in corrections. On the basis of Garnet’s correspondence, however, his authorship was established by A.F. Allison (1951: 8-10, 14-15), and the attribution is generally accepted (Caraman 1964; McCoog 2004).

[18] The doctrine of equivocation taught that though lying was a sin, deliberately misleading interrogators, even under oath, was permissible, so long as the vocalised lie was accompanied by a ‘mental reservation’ which, in completing a statement, made it true. The doctrine had initially been established by Martinus Navarrus, and had been an issue at the trial of the Jesuit Robert Southwell in 1595 (Zagorin 1990: 153-85). The ‘Treatise’ supplied a thorough theoretical basis, with casuistic examples, and supporting quotations from the Bible and the Church Fathers. The theory laid out in Garnet’s manuscript derived from Aristotle’s account of propositions in the De interpretatione 16a1-8: in addition to the three obvious kinds of propositions or sentences, mental, verbal, and written, there existed a fourth kind, the mixed proposition, which combined two of the three other modes (Garnet 1851: 8-10). Thus, for example, in answer to the question whether or not one had attended Mass, it was permissible to say ‘no’, so long as the statement was accompanied by a mental reservation or ‘restrictio mentalis’ to the effect ‘not in London’, or ‘not yesterday’, etc. (Garnet 1851: 15-18). In a scandalous example, a Father Ward had sworn that he was ‘no priest’, with the mental reservation ‘of Apollo at Delphi’ (Fraser 2002: 293). Pace Frank Huntley, the ‘mixed proposition’ does not derive directly from Aristotle (Huntley 1964: 391n.11), but via later scholastic commentary (Malloch 1966). Garnet alerts his reader to his source in his margin, as ‘Navar. in cap. Humanae aures’: his exposition derives from Navarrus, one of the Andalusian scholars whom Burton read.

[19] Philosophaster is not the only play composed in the immediate aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot to make thematic reference to equivocation. The most familiar case is Macbeth, in which direct references to Garnet have been used to date the play (Rogers 1965; Wills 1995: 93-105 and 151-7). The Porter, responding to the knocking at the castle gates, declares ‘[h]ere’s a farmer that hanged himself on th’expectation of plenty’ (II.3.3-4) — ‘Farmer’ was one of Garnet’s pseudonyms — and ‘Faith, here’s an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator’ (II.3.9-13) (Shakespeare 1997: 148). A further example survives in a dramatic fragment published anonymously at Cambridge, which, like Philosophaster, combines Roman new comedy and vilification of Jesuits. Entitled Aequivocationis tenebrae pugnant cum rationis lumine — ‘the shadows of equivocation do battle with the light of reason’ — it survives in various collections as a single printed broadsheet. The scene presents a dialogue between ‘Pseudolus, or Aequivocator’, and ‘Simia’. The names are drawn from Plautus’s Pseudolus, in which Pseudolus (‘deceitful’), is the stock clever slave, and Simia (‘ape’) — a convenient opportunity for the anti-Jesuit imagery also used by Burton — another slave with whom he plots. Here they become two Jesuit priests in England, in disguise. Simia begs Pseudolus to tell him how to avoid the persecution to which the Jesuits are particularly subject. Pseudolus responds by explaining equivocation: how to use ‘lucifugam sermonem, & versicoloria dicta’ (‘light-fleeing speech, and words of changing colour’) without lying. The deceptive verbal gymnastics recommended in this fragment are elaborated more intricately in Philosophaster.

[20] Burton’s Aequivocus is, paradoxically, straightforward in declaring his deceit: ‘When I speak, I dissemble. I learned to equivocate long ago from both parents. My mother Amphibologia was both a whore and a bawd, my father Agyrta, a magician and unparalleled imposter’ (45). Amphibology or amphiboly is a figure of speech technically distinct from equivocation: it describes ambiguity which arises through syntax, though the words themselves remain unequivocal, while in equivocation, the double sense of particular words is at issue. They are however frequently associated, appearing as a doublet in Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, for example (Browne 1646: 13), and carry the same connotation of quibbling and deceiving through ambiguity. The earliest meaning of ‘Agyrta’ in Greek is ‘a begging priest’, coming to mean in drama a ‘beggar, mountebank, vagabond, juggler’ (LSJ s.v. ‘ἀγύρτης’. Agyrta, the conjuring priest, is thus a Classical forebear for the impostor Jesuits of Burton’s imagination. Aequivocus—like equivocation—is born from a combination of the ambiguities of language and the deceptions of priests.

[21] The use of equivocation in Macbeth expands from its limited topical reference to a thematic and structural device at the heart of the tragedy (Rogers 1964; Kałuża 1990; Kerrigan 1999: 32-9). In the comedy of Philosophaster, equivocation becomes part of the academic satire. Act II opens, for example, with a parody of scholastic logic and metaphysics. In a punning exchange between Polupistos and Simon Acutus, the sophist, Burton shows equivocation in action:

POLUPISTOS:         Do you know a certain master, Polupragmaticus, where he lives?
SIMON ACUTUS:    Your question can be taken two ways. First, if it is asked in this sense, whether I know a master, I say yes. If in the sense whether I know this master, I say that I do not know. (69)

Polupistos echoes the questions put to those suspected of harbouring priests or attending masses, and Simon Acutus’s response is equivocation. Since Simon Acutus does in fact know Polupragmaticus, to claim outright that he does not know him would be a lie. His quibble however offers two different answers to the question, opposite in significance, but equally true depending on the speaker’s mental construction of the situation: the fundamental condition for successful equivocation. One of Garnet’s examples in the ‘Treatise’ turns on precisely this distinction: asked whether one had attended mass, or harboured a priest, a Roman Catholic could legitimately answer ‘no’, even under oath, so long as he thought of a particular priest other than he who had in fact been harboured, or an occasion other than that on which the Mass had been celebrated (Garnet 1851: 17-18, 31). Of course, if mental reservations are to be represented on the stage, they must cease to be mental. Thus Simon Acutus explains what he means by ‘I say that I do not know’. He accepts that he knows a master; he refuses to admit, however, that he knows Polupragmaticus, the master about whom he has been asked. The audience, party both to Simon Acutus’s acquaintance with Polupragmaticus and the operations of his mental reservation, understands his equivocation.

[22] A further layer of complication is added by the fact that Polupragmaticus is in any case no academic ‘magister’, which Simon Acutus highlights with an ‘explanation’ in convoluted scholastic jargon:

I will explain it as follows. […] I know formally to the extent that being as being has in our mind one concept common to all, just as Scotus holds in the Metaphysics. But not quidditatively to the extent that the principle of individuation has its own essence or is particularized through accidents, according to St. Thomas, adding something and individuating its own subject not according to a known being, but according to an actual representative thing. And thus I do not know his Masterness. (69)

This may seem deliberate nonsense: an example of the scholastic ‘laborious webbes of learning’ and ‘vermiculate questions’ condemned by Francis Bacon (Bacon 2000: 24). Lurking behind the obfuscation, however, is equivocation performed through the Aristotelian commentary tradition which Burton associates with the Roman Catholic universities of Andalusia throughout Philosophaster. Simon Acutus accepts that he ‘formally’ knows the abstract universal ‘magistralitas’, or ‘Masterness’; he does not know, however, how abstract universals are individuated or particularised. Moreover, since Polupragmaticus is not an academic master in any case, as Simon Acutus and the audience know,  and thus not an instanciation of ‘Masterness’, he can in all honesty answer that he does not know Polupragmaticus’s ‘magistralitas’ as an ‘actual representative thing’. He can understand the question ‘do you know a certain master, Polupragmaticus’ to refer to a non-existent case of ‘Masterness’ and in good conscience answer ‘no’. The contortions of his answer lay bear the mechanisms of equivocation drawn to an extreme, a parody of the cases Garnet presents in the ‘Treatise’. The political and academic aspects of Burton’s satire come together: the caricature of scholasticism’s periphrastic abuses of language is seen to be of a piece with the dangerous and seditious doctrine of equivocation.

[23] This is only one of many examples. Burton stages equivocation differently in II.7, when Aequivocus augments Polupragmaticus’s lies to Polupistos with asides, revealing to the audience Polupragmaticus’s mental reservations. Simon Acutus’s denial of Polupragmaticus is echoed late in the play, by which point Aequivocus has proved his falsity even to his master:

POLUPRAGMATICUS: Do you know my Aequivocus?
SIMON ACUTUS:         As I know you.
POLUPRAGMATICUS: Then you know a jester and a thief.
PANTOMAGUS:            He has stolen my money chest and fled. Indeed he left not a penny.
SIMON ACUTUS:         To deceive a deceiver is not deceit. (159)

Simon Acutus recalls another precept of equivocation: if your interrogator is a heretic, your obligation not to mislead him evaporates (Garnet 1851: 17-18, 68-70). With Aequivocus’s theft of the spoils of his co-conspirators, equivocation is endemic, and saturnalian chaos reigns, only to be restored to order by the final scene with its disclosures, marriage, and restitutions. Equivocation and Jesuitism thus function, in Philosophaster, as the generically necessary forces of disorder which threaten to turn the world upside down. Banishment of those threats constitutes the comedic resolution, purging the sick academy of its disorders, and restores the university to order and balance as a ‘renouata Academia’ (198).

[24] It has not been my intent in this essay to recuperate Philosophaster as comic literature. I do want to suggest, however, that it is not merely ‘an obvious and elementary string of transparent sketches’ (Burton 1984: 6), and that as a result of the failure to consider Philosophaster’s occasion attentively, even ‘obvious’ and ‘elementary’ anti-Catholicism, and its topical implications, have been missed. Reading Philosophaster in the light of the Anatomy has minimised its engagement with the Gunpowder Plot and the anti-Catholic attacks, verbal and political, which it prompted. Seen in connection with the blatant satires and caricatures of Jesuitism, and the central device of equivocation, Burton’s academic satire in the play becomes political: philosophy is corrupted in Philosophaster not just by generic mountebanks and quacksalvers, but by representatives of Roman Catholic scholarship and scholasticism. It is these, Burton implies, that ought to be purged from the academy.

[25] Angus Gowland has recently drawn attention to recusancy in Burton’s mother’s family, and in particular to the potential influence of his uncle, Arthur Faunt, a Jesuit controversialist who was vice-rector at the Jesuit College in PoznaÅ„, and professor of dogmatic theology at the Jesuit Academy in Vilna in Lithuania, where he died (Murphy 2004). Faunt was thus a representative of the Jesuit scholars satirised and vilified in Philosophaster. There is nonetheless evidence that he was esteemed in the Burton family. William Burton, Robert’s brother, praised Faunt in his Description of Leicestershire (Burton 1622: 105-6), and Robert Burton wrote a brief biography of his uncle in the flyleaf of his copy of Faunt’s De invocatione ac veneratione Sanctorum, adding ‘cuius ego su[m] e sorore nepos’ [I am his nephew through his sister] (Faunt 1589). But if, as Gowland argues, we are to take into account this biographical information as a ‘significant background factor in shaping the spiritual sympathies’ of the Anatomy, we must temper it with the caricatures and satire on Roman Catholicism and Jesuits in Philosophaster (Gowland 2006: 5).

[26] Philosophaster has sometimes been read as a pastiche or imitation of Jonson. Once its topicality is better understood, however, different parallels and contrasts emerge. The play has more in common with Donne’s Conclave Ignati, or Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or Dekker’s anti-Catholic pamphleteering, than with The Alchemist or Poestaster. Garry Wills, in studying Macbeth, established a set of criteria for a ‘Gunpowder play’: there must be references to the Plot; the attempted destruction of a kingdom; ‘convulsions’ brought about by ‘plots, and equivocation’; the intervention of witches (Wills 1995: 9). Since Wills’s net brings back only four plays—Macbeth, John Marston’s Sophonisba, Dekker’s The Whore of Babylon, and Barnabe Barnes’s The Devil’s Charter—it is worth taking the definition loosely. If we allow the University of Osuna to represent a ‘kingdom’, and replace ‘witches’ with the alchemists and Paracelsians of Philosophaster, Burton’s comedy can be added to the list. Burton’s foregrounding of the composition of the play in 1606 is not a claim of primogeniture against Jonson’s Alchemist; instead, it asks the reader to remember the fifth of November.

Jesus College, Oxford


[1] The date is given as 16 February 1617 old style on the two extant manuscripts of the complete play, Harvard Theatre Collection MS Thr.10, and Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.a.315. The part of Polupragmaticus has been preserved as Harvard MS Thr.10.1. Burton also supplies the date in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1989-2000, I.325). References to the Anatomy will be supplied in text throughout, prefixed by the letters AM. [back to text]

[2] I would like to thank Mary Ann Lund, Victoria Moul, and Oliver Thomas for their suggestions on earlier versions of this essay. [back to text]

[3] See Burton 1862, 1931, 1993; the facsimile Burton 1984. The translation in Burton 1993 is used throughout unless otherwise indicated, with page references in the text. Philosophaster received a performance at the University of California, Los Angeles, in January 1930 (Babb 1959: 31n.7). [back to text]

[4] The honourable exception is John Dewey’s account of the Oxford contexts (1968: 131-91). While recognising salient aspects of the play’s topical references, however, he does not pursue their allegorical presentation or Burton’s staging of them, and ignores the connection between confessional politics and philosophical and academic tradition which is my main concern here. [back to text]

[5] McQuillen’s notes also identify substantial borrowings from Juvenal, Erasmus and Giovanni Pontano, among others. [back to text]

[6] Academic plays were attended by women and townsfolk, as well as students and scholars (Binns 1990: 138-9). [back to text]

[7] McQuillen notes (61, n.5) that this is practically a verbatim transcription of a section of Pontano’s ‘Antonius dialogus’, substituting ‘Oxford’ for ‘Bologna’. The dead men are the books chained to the library desks and shelves. Oxford is also mentioned on 163. [back to text]

[8] Burton may also have intended a reference to Isidore of Seville, a seventh-century bishop and encyclopaedist whose Etymologiae preserved what little of Aristotle had survived in western Europe in the early middle ages. Burton refers to Isidore at AM 3.429. I am grateful to Mary Ann Lund for this suggestion. [back to text]

[9] The translation here mixes McQuillen (43) and Jordan-Smith (29). Philosophaster’s anti-Jesuit satire is briefly observed in Gossett 1982: 34. [back to text]

[10] The list and ‘I know it all’ are taken from Juvenal’s Satire 3.76-77 (Burton 1931: 230). [back to text]

[11] For some tropes of anti-Catholicism in Jacobean England, see Shell 1999, especially chapter 1. [back to text]

[12] The OED denies that ‘hocus-pocus’ derives from ‘hoc est corpus [meum]’, said by the priest in consecrating the wafer in the Mass. The folk etymology is however traced to a sermon by John Tillotson, delivered in 1694, which states ‘In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of transubstantiation’, which exemplifies the stock figure of the conjuring priest, even if Tillotson goropizes. [back to text]

[13] On the representation of Jesuit disguise, see Shell 1992: 132-3; on the association between the Jesuit and the stage mountebank, 134-44. [back to text]

[14] On the rarity of stage Jesuits, despite the frequency of clearly related mountebanks, see Shell 1992: 131-3. [back to text]

[15] It is not clear from the text who is to be branded, but the persistent anti-Catholicism would suggest the Jesuit Polupragmaticus, Aequivocus, and Simon Acutus, with the addition of Theanus, who repeatedly reveals himself an unthinking, uncurious follower of the Catholic Church (see e.g. 85, 89). [back to text]

[16] Plutarch’s essay in the Moralia “Περὶ Πολυπραγμοσύνης” was translated into Latin as ‘De curiositate’; on this semantic shift see Walsh 1988. The Athenian poet Timocles was said to have written a lost comedy entitled Polypragmon (Philips 1675: 385). [back to text]

[17] A list of the apparel and furniture required for the performance of Alba survives in the Oxford University Archives and has been printed (Boas and Greg 1909). Expenses are detailed in Alton 1959/60. [back to text]


Manuscripts and annotated printed books

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud MS misc. 655

Oxford University Archives, SP/E/6/1

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Garnet, Henry, S.J.. 1851. A Treatise of Equivocation, ed. by David Jardine (London)

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Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow

Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow

R. W. Maslen

Robin Goodfellow in Athens
[1]  In darkness, Nashe tells us in The Terrors of the Night (1594), mortals are more vulnerable to the machinations of the devil than they ever are by daylight.[1] Dreams and night visions weave Satan’s most cunning ‘nets of temptation’ (Nashe 1972; 210), and after sunset one’s eyes turn into magnifying glasses, so that ‘each mote […] they make a monster, and every slight glimmering a giant’ (239), multiplying the viewer’s proneness to delinquency and despair. For the Elizabethan anti-theatrical lobby, on the other hand – as represented by pamphleteers like Stephen Gosson, Phillip Stubbes and William Rankins – it is drama rather than dreams that constitutes the Devil’s weapon of choice in the unceasing siege he lays to the human mind and spirit. Plays, they claim, constitute an elaborate imaginative trap whereby Satan lulls the citizens of London into a false sense of security, then ambushes their souls through the unguarded portals of the senses. So when in about 1595 Shakespeare wrote a comedy called A Midsummer Night’s Dream and crammed it full of spirits, damned or otherwise, he was playing a witty game with the fears of Gosson and his fellow thespiphobes. What I shall argue here is that the game he played in the Dream was already in full swing among the pamphlets and printers’ shops of 1590s London, and that the appearance of Robin Goodfellow in the woods of Athens would instantly have alerted his first audiences to Shakespeare’s participation in it.

[2]  Puck’s presence in the Dream has long been something of a puzzle – whether acknowledged as such or simply ignored. Classical creatures had found their way into the English landscape often enough in Elizabethan culture before Shakespeare started writing: the transformed Philomene had warbled in English woods in Gascoigne’s verse satire The Steel Glass (1576), Neptune had terrorized Humberside in John Lyly’s play Gallathea (c. 1588), the sea-god Glaucus had moped by the banks of the Thames in Thomas Lodge’s poem Scilla’s Metamorphosis (1589). But Shakespeare’s transplanting of Robin Goodfellow to some woods near Athens was the first time (to my knowledge) that a figure from English folk legend had been relocated to the Mediterranean, and the implications of that relocation have not yet, I think, been fully worked out. For one thing, as a peculiarly northern forest-dweller Robin may have had some effect on the relationship between night and day in his new, more southerly setting. Nashe reminds us in The Terrors of the Night that nights are longer in the north, and especially in Iceland, where witches and wizards are plentiful and possess an enviable power over local weather-conditions (223). The Dream transplants those northern nights to Greece, curtailing daylight hours and extending the shortest night in the year to giant proportions. Four days and four nights are supposed to have passed between the first and last scenes of the comedy, whereas the audience experiences only two – and has no idea which of those two is the midsummer night of the title. Robin Goodfellow seems the obvious person to blame for this hypertrophied period of darkness, since he is associated in folk tradition with night, dreams, trickery and Devilish magic. Moreover, he had an unusually high profile in print during the early 1590s, featuring everywhere as a spirit who transcends the normal boundaries of space, time, life and death. It is only by recovering this profile that we can hope to understand his function in Shakespeare’s ancient Greek extravaganza.

Puck in Print
[3]  For the Elizabethans, Robin possessed a strange double nature, as the embodiment both of English Catholic superstition in the past and of an innocent native cheerfulness that had been lost with the advent of continental sophistication in the present. Reginald Scot paints him in the former light in The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), where he features as a bugbear whose ability to terrorize night-wandering papists has been stripped from him by Protestant rationalism: ‘Robin goodfellowe ceaseth now to be much feared, and poperie is sufficientlie discovered’ (sig. B2v). The poet William Warner concurs with Scot. His Robin is a spirit who appears like an incubus to sleeping mortals, and in the fourteenth book of Warner’s digressive epic Albion’s England (published in 1606) Robin sits naked on the face of a dormant shepherd and laments the good old days of Mary’s reign, when English Catholics everywhere believed in him: ‘Was then a merrie world with us when Mary wore the Crowne, / And holy-water-sprinkle was beleevd to put us downe’ (1971: 368). But Warner’s Robin is also a blunt teller of unwelcome truths to Protestants. He goes on to utter a satirical invective against the various forms of hypocrisy prevalent in the reigns of Elizabeth and James, thus revealing himself to have as much of the satyr as of the demon about him.

[4]  This is hardly surprising, since by the time Warner painted this picture of him in 1606 Robin had long been associated with satire as well as with drama, dreams and devils. Robin’s conversion into a satirist is in fact inextricably bound up with his theatrical associations. In a pamphlet of 1590 called Tarlton’s News out of Purgatory the ghost of the late great comic actor Richard Tarlton appears to the anonymous author in a dream, and sooths his terror at this visitation by reassuring him that he is no devil, but a homely spirit like the noted goblin: ‘thinke mee to bee one of those Familiares Lares that were rather pleasantly disposed then indued with any hurtfull influence, as Hob Thrust, Robin Goodfellowe and such like spirites (as they terme them of the buttry) famozed in everie olde wives Chronicle for their mad merry pranckes’ (2). As a substitute Robin, Tarlton links himself with Catholicism – but a Catholicism defused of the terrors of damnation with which it had been charged by Protestant dogma. When the author asks the dead clown’s ghost how it has managed to visit the land of the living, given the Calvinist belief that ‘the soules of them which are departed […] never returne into the world againe till the generall resurrection’ (2-3), Tarlton contemptuously dismisses Calvinist doctrine as unhealthily dualistic. His spirit, like that of Hamlet’s father, inhabits Purgatory, the third alternative to heaven and hell, vouched for by the great poet ‘Dant’ as well as by ‘our forefathers’ and ‘holy Bishops of Rome’ (3) – hence its ability to return now and then to the earth’s surface. In this way the clown blithely sweeps aside decades of religious conflict; and he goes on to tell a string of stories under the aegis of a non-judgemental version of the afterlife which permits the free flow of merry tales between this world and the next, regardless of theology. His stories may stink of sulphur but they are ‘rather pleasantly disposed then indued with any hurtfull influence’; and in telling them he dismisses out of hand the didactic goody-goodies who saw all such stories – on stage or on the page – as works of Satan.

[5]  Tarlton’s News was ‘published’, according to its title-page, by an ‘old Companion’ of Tarlton’s, Robin Goodfellow – the spirit with which the ghost of Tarlton links itself. It seems fitting, then, that when an anonymous ‘Cobbler’ wrote a story-collection of his own (The Cobbler of Canterbury (1590)), and prefaced it with a light-hearted attack on the shortcomings of Tarlton’s News, Robin Goodfellow should have penned a response to the cobbler’s preface, which was printed immediately after it in the first edition. Here the goblin takes the cobbler’s objections to his publication as a sign of the times, when respect for good manners has been utterly eroded since the happy days when he was ‘so merry a spirit of the Butterie’, helping maids to grind malt and getting a ‘messe of Creame’ for his labour (sig. A4r). The inhospitable spirit of Elizabethan England has driven Robin to a self-imposed exile in Purgatory along with his old friend Tarlton. It has also made him devilishly vindictive, though not frighteningly so: he promises to ‘haunt’ the cobbler ‘in his sleepe, and after his olde merrie humour, so to playe the knave with the Cobler, that hee shall repent hee medled so farre beyond his latchet’ (sig. A4r). Damnation and hauntings have here been reduced to pretexts for comic squabbling and trickery, quite bereft of the fear with which the established churches sought to invest them.

[6]   At this point in our story the immensely popular writer of romances and comedies Robert Greene gets mixed up with Puck’s Elizabethan biography. Evidently a rumour went round that Greene had written The Cobbler of Canterbury, and to deny this rumour Greene wrote a pamphlet called Greene’s Vision (1592) in which he is visited in his sleep by the ghosts of Chaucer and Gower, who debate the merits and demerits of Greene’s prolific scribblings. At the end of the dispute the spirit of King Solomon appears and elicits a promise from Greene that he will from henceforth devote himself to theology; and perhaps for this reason Greene did not publish the pamphlet in his lifetime, reluctant to commit himself to such a career-changing volte-face until he had exhausted the profitable vein of fiction he was still working at the end of his life. When it did appear, the pamphlet reintroduced the fear of hell into the dialogue between pamphleteers, since it opened with a section where Greene articulates his ‘trouble of minde’ in distinctly Faustian terms: ‘can the hideous mountaines hide me, can wealth redeeme sinne, can beautie countervaile my faults, or the whole world counterpoyse the balance of mine offences?’ (Grosart 1881-83: XII 207). Greene’s fellow pamphleteer Barnaby Rich pounced on this hint at Greene’s posthumous fate, and described him in Greene’s News both from Heaven and Hell (1593) as wandering between Heaven and Hell in search of the happy third location, Purgatory, where he can escape damnation while retaining all the venial faults that made him so attractive a writer in his lifetime. (On his journey he meets Dick Tarlton, who has now become Lucifer’s resident satirist-entertainer.) The devil finally expels Greene’s ghost from hell at the request of the cony-catchers he exposed in his final pamphlets; and at this point Greene is transformed into a particularly aggressive incarnation of our old friend Robin Goodfellow, a spirit who troubles the nocturnal wanderings of living sinners. ‘I woulde therefore wish my friendes,’ he declares, ‘to beware howe they walke late a nights, for I will bee the maddest Gobline, that ever used to walke in the moonshine’ (sig. H3r), haunting the sleep of women and persuading them to cuckold their husbands, infecting men of all occupations with the spirit of avarice so that they will do anything to amass wealth for their heirs, and urging lawyers, courtiers and clergymen to persevere in the corrupt practices already rife in their professions. Robin has resumed his mantle as a night-dwelling satirist; but by now he trails in his wake the ghosts of clowns and popular authors, whose activities had been denounced as devilish by the theatre- and fiction-haters along with Robin himself. The implication here as elsewhere is that the target of the moralists has been badly misjudged, and that they have wasted their energies in denouncing fictions and the makers of fictions, when in fact these are far more effective and energetic in attacking social abuses than they are.

[7]  For all his residence in a fictitious Catholic Purgatory, then, Robin Goodfellow was seen as mostly harmless by Shakespeare’s predecessors in popular print. Indeed, he was represented as the victim of a miscarriage of justice, sharing with the common people of England the burden of an inequitable social and legal system, and endowed with gifts that enable him to expose these inequities. In the anonymous pamphlet Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift (1593) he joins forces with the honest narrator Tell-troth to denounce the operations of jealousy or envy at every level of the English commonwealth. Here he is characterised as ‘Robin good-fellow… who never did worse harme, then correct manners, and made diligent maides’ (sig. A2r), a kind of incorruptible agent for the discovery of hidden vices, who ‘could go invisible from his infancy’, is ‘subject to no inferiour power whatsoever’, and has ‘a generall priviledge to search every corner, and enter every castell to a good purpose’ (sig. A2r-A2v). Robin’s affiliation with hell is explained as a consequence of this privilege, which means he can visit even the infernal regions without becoming contaminated by them, and use what he sees and hears there ‘to a good purpose’. The insistence on his independence of all authority apart from nature’s is intriguing: it is the most explicit statement so far that Robin has become a figure for the legendary liberty of imaginative writers, a liberty invoked by the ghost of the executed poet Collingbourne in William Baldwin’s hugely influential collection of political poems, A Mirror for Magistrates (1563).

[8]  Behind all these vision-pamphlets, in fact, the Mirror looms as a monumental presence, containing as it does the richest collection of posthumous first-person narratives in the English language. Its versified stories of the decline and fall of great men and women throughout English history are narrated by the spirits of the dead, and its representation of the past is repeatedly linked to political and social abuses still current in the present. Interestingly, too, it features a representation by a protestant poet of a Hell that is based on classical accounts of Hades (as it is in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (c. 1589) and Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift) and which is also explicitly linked to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. This representation of Hell occurs in the celebrated ‘Induction’ to Thomas Sackville’s tragedy of the Duke of Buckingham, and is followed by a discussion of Purgatory among the protestant writers who have gathered to hear the narrative. The Induction’s Hell, complains one writer, ‘savoreth so much of Purgatory… that the ignorant maye thereby be deceyved’ (fol. 137r) – presumably into thinking that Purgatory really exists. But the chief editor of the Mirror, the printer-poet William Baldwin, disagrees. In his poem, says Baldwin, Sackville has depicted not Hell or Purgatory but the grave, ‘wherin the dead bodies of al sortes of people do rest till tyme of the resurrection. And in this sence is Hel taken often in the scriptures, and in the writynges of learned christians’ (fol. 137r). A second listener goes further. What does it matter if Sackville’s Hell resembles Purgatory, he says, since ‘it is a Poesie and no divinitye, and it is lawfull for poetes to fayne what they lyst, so it be appertinent to the matter’? True enough, Baldwin replies, but such liberty has not always been accorded to poets; and he proceeds to read out the tragedy of Collingbourne, who was executed for writing satirical verse in the reign of Richard III, and whose ghost warns all poets to beware of speaking the truth about tyrants in an age that has grown ‘so fell and fearce / That vicious actes may not be toucht in verse’, and when ‘The Muses freedome, graunted them of olde, / Is barde, aye reasons treasons hye are helde’ (fol. 138r). The tragedy closes with the heartfelt wish from its listeners that the warning it contains ‘may take suche place with the Magistrates, that they maye ratifie our olde freedome’ to speak openly in verse (fol. 146v). Restoring this liberty will work for the ruling classes as much as for the common people in whose name the poet speaks, since rulers need to know what their subjects think of them if they are to defend themselves from popular insurrection and eventual dethronement.

[9]  The audience of Collingbourne’s tragedy speak with the heartfelt hopefulness of Protestants who have lived through persecution under a Catholic monarch and who hope for something better under her successor. The first print-run of A Mirror for Magistrates was suppressed in the reign of Mary Tudor, and the 1563 edition from which I have been quoting couches its plea for poetic liberty in terms that are wittily designed to shock both radical protestants and Catholics alike – invoking the concept of Purgatory while at the same time dismissing it as a poetic fabrication – as if to test the Elizabethan reader’s capacity for greater tolerance. The references to Purgatory in the pamphlets of the 1590s seem to take up this notion of Purgatory as emblematic of the poet’s exemption from political or religious persecution, as does their frequent invocation of that figment of the superstitious Catholic imagination Robin Goodfellow. Robin is a spirit of the buttery – that is, the bar or pub – rather than of the infernal regions, and his location in Purgatory indicates his temporary immunity from knee-jerk moral judgments based on over-rigid notions of right and wrong.

[10]  In the spirit of the other pamphlets we have touched on, Henry Chettle’s Kind-Heart’s Dream (1593) deploys its revenants to argue against simplistic views of the theatre and popular print. Robin does not figure in it (though it addresses itself to ‘Gentlemen and good-fellowes’, sig. B1r), but the ghosts of both Tarlton and Robert Greene are summoned up, the latter appealing to Pierce Penniless – a pseudonym of Thomas Nashe – to defend his memory against the posthumous slanders of Gabriel Harvey, and the former defending the stage against its detractors while acknowledging the shortcomings of the modern theatre. ‘Mirth in seasonable time taken,’ the ghost of Tarlton avers, ‘is not forbidden by the austerest Sapients. But indeed there is a time of mirth, and a time of mourning. Which time having been by the Magistrates wisely observed, as well for the suppressing of Playes, as other pleasures: so likewise a time may come, when honest recreation shall have his former libertie’ (sig. C4r). The latter sentence so closely echoes the discussion of Collingbourne’s tragedy in the Mirror that it is hard not to read it as a reminder of William Baldwin’s hope that liberty of speech will be restored to poets at last – even if only at the latter end of Elizabeth’s reign. Greene and Tarlton, poets and players are ‘good fellows’ in two Elizabethan senses: good drinking companions (Kind-heart sees their apparitions while dozing in a tavern) and morally upright citizens who tackle vice wherever they see it. And both wish the same punishment on all moralistic ‘maligners of honest mirth’: that is, ‘continuall melancholy’ (sig. C2v).

[11]  In Nashe’s Terrors of the Night – a pamphlet where spirits and devils are reduced to the size of dust particles so that ‘not a room in any man’s house but is pestered and close-packed with them’ (1972: 212) – Don Lucifer himself, ‘their grand Capitano’, is described as having taken on the form of a ‘puritan’ with an aversion to shows and ceremonies of all kinds (230). In doing so he has ceased to be the cheerful entertainer he was of yore, when he ‘was wont to jest and sport with country people, and play the Goodfellow amongst kitchen-wenches’ (231). As a result of this transformation ‘there is no goodness in him but miserableness and covetousness’; he has shifted his allegiance to the camp of the theatre-haters and laughter-loathers, and the world is a poorer place. Here again Robin represents a form of night mischief that is finally harmless, despite its devilish associations, and those who set themselves against it condemn both themselves and others to an unalleviated depression (the condition for which laughter was prescribed by early modern physicians).

[12]  Shakespeare’s Robin Goodfellow is the heir to all these Robins, Greenes, Tarltons and merry Devils. Like his precursors he frequents the sleeping places of mortals, shaping what are in effect their dreams (all the lovers concur in retrospectively perceiving the business in the wood as dreamlike). Like the Robin of Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift he can make himself invisible at will and go with impunity wherever he wishes in the globe or, presumably, out of it. Tell-Troth’s Robin has the licence accorded to fools (and sometimes poets) to meddle with the doings of all classes, and Shakespeare’s Puck takes the role of Oberon’s fool, making and discovering fools wherever he turns up. The merry tricks he plays are mentioned often in the pamphlets, and became the subject of a jest-book in the seventeenth century, Robin Goodfellow his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests (1628), filled with stories like the ones he tells the fairy on his first appearance in Act Two. And his connection with fairies is taken for granted by nearly all the pamphleteers, as it is by Shakespeare. Nashe, for instance, associates Robin with ‘elves, fairies, hobgoblins of our latter age’ in The Terrors of the Night (210); and it is striking that Puck’s fairy friends in Shakespeare’s play have the capacity to shrink themselves to the size of Nashe’s mote-like devils. Even Puck’s fondness for hemp, for stamping and for bellowing ‘Ho ho ho!’ is shared with the Robin of The Cobbler of Canterbury, whose catchphrase when provoked is ‘What Hemp and Hampe, here will I never more grinde nor stampe’ (sig. A4v). Clearly Shakespeare was deeply immersed in the recent literary as well as folkloric history of his ‘merry wanderer of the night’ (2.1.43), and knew how well the ground had been prepared for the rapprochement between popular superstition and sophisticated comedy by his precursors among the Elizabethan pamphleteers.

[13]  Shakespeare’s artfully managed rapprochement between popular superstition and romance, too, was prepared for by the pamphleteers we have glanced at. Robin’s interest in lovers is first established in Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift, where he condemns greedy fathers for seeking to wed their daughters to wealthy men against their will, and catalogues the many forms of jealousy and fallings-out between sweethearts which occupy the central scenes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tell-Troth ends with a general blessing bestowed by Robin on young lovers, which foreshadows Oberon’s blessing of Theseus’s household at the end of the Dream:

Their dalliaunce shall bee rewarded with darlings, whose sweete favoured faces, shall be continuall pledges of their faithfull kindnesse […] Their encrease shalbe multiplied, their substance doubled and trebled till it come to aboundance […] They shall adde so great a blessing to their store as time shall not take away the memory of them, nor fame suffer their antiquitye ever to die […] Thus shall loves followers be thrise happy, and thus Robin goodfellowes well-willers, in imitating his care bee manifolde blessed […] (sig. F4v-F5r)

Oberon too promises that the issue created in the ‘bride beds’ of Theseus, Hippolyta and the rest will be ‘fortunate’, free from the ‘blots of nature’s hand’, and that the ‘couples three’ who engendered them will ‘Ever true in loving be’ (5.1.394-411); and Puck follows up this promise with a heartfelt appeal to his well-willers among the audience. Shakespeare’s Puck shares, too, with Tell-Troth’s Robin a particular concern for the well-being of amorous women, as he shows when he mistakenly dismisses Lysander as ‘this lack-love, this kill-courtesy’ for his apparent spurning of Hermia (2.2.83). The goblin, then, was associated with the defence of romance as well as of the stage at the point when Shakespeare introduced him into his Athenian love story. He was also already seen as a link between English and classical myth, one of the Lares familiares or household spirits transformed into an impudent English imp who lives in a classical-Purgatorial Hades, well before Shakespeare gave him a new home in the woods of ancient Greece; and a half-demonic champion of laughter with a heart of gold, well before Shakespeare gave him the capacity both to laugh at and pity the mortal fools he spies on.

[14]  The combination of mischief-making with benevolence is shared by Shakespeare’s goblin with his namesakes in Tarlton’s News, The Cobbler of Canterbury and Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift. In Shakespeare’s play, it is Oberon who speaks most openly about this fusion of qualities, when he invokes the link between himself, his fellow spirits and the devil at the end of the third act, telling Robin to ‘overcast the night’ with ‘fog as black as Acheron’ (3.2.355-7) – one of the rivers in the classical underworld – and encouraging him to mimic the voices of Demetrius and Lysander (3.2.360-3) as devils are said to mimic men’s voices and shapes in Nashe’s Terrors of the Night (Nashe 1972: 211). But when Robin tells him that this must be done swiftly before dawn sends ‘damned spirits’ back to their ‘wormy beds’ (no hint of Purgatory here), Oberon replies by dissociating himself and Robin utterly from souls who have ‘themselves exiled from light’. ‘We are spirits of another sort’, he claims, and goes on to describe his delight in dallying with the morning sunshine like Apollo, the classical god of learning (3.2.378-93); and this assertion of benevolence is reinforced at the point when the fairies and Puck extend their benison to the sleeping lovers in the play’s last scene. If plays resemble dreams, in this play they are evidently dreams that bring peace and health to those who experience them.

[15]  Having said this, the terror of damnation with which the theatre-haters had infected the playhouse is by no means absent from Shakespeare’s comedy. When Robin Goodfellow turns ‘actor’, for instance, after witnessing the amateur theatrics of the craftsmen (3.1.75), he throws them into a superstitious panic by assuming a range of terrible forms: ‘Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn’ (3.1.106). But the devilry he practises is finally harmless, like the merry pranks played by the demonic Vices of an earlier dramatic tradition, or the antics of the devilish satyr-spirits in the pamphlets of the 1590s. And if it is both harmless and health-giving, the theatre-haters who saw it only as monstrous stand condemned for crude thinking, moral cowardice, and a lack of generosity. After all, the craftsmen welcomed Bottom back into their midst when they saw he was no monster (4.2); whereas the theatre-haters at their most extreme could find no place in a civil commonwealth for comedy.

[16]  It is hardly surprising, then, if in the last lines of the play Robin himself should turn defender of the theatre, like Tarlton in Kind-Heart’s Dream. Theseus lays the groundwork for this defence earlier in the scene when he teaches his contemptuous master of the revels Philostrate the proper way to respond to well-meant drama. ‘Never anything can be amiss,’ he says, ‘When simpleness and duty tender it’ (5.1.82-3); and he goes on to explain how best to read incompetent performances where the actors stumble over their lines and fall silent, overawed by the grandeur of their audience. ‘Trust me, sweet,’ he tells Titania,

Out of this silence yet I picked a welcome,
And in the modesty of fearful duty
I read as much as from the rattling tongue
Of saucy and audacious eloquence.
Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity
In least speak most, to my capacity (5.1.99-105).

For Theseus, a courteous audience participates in a performance, reading into it the good will they would hope to find in all the works of the imagination. A little later he characterizes this process of generous reading as a kind of amendment or emendation: ‘The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them’ (5.1.210-1). It’s the word ‘amend’ that Puck takes up in his epilogue; a word that had long been associated with readerly generosity by Elizabethan readers. Presenting their books to a potentially hostile public, some authors prefaced them with a gnomic challenge to their critics: ‘commend it, or amend it’; speak well of a work of art if you can’t improve on it. Robin Goodfellow presents his audience with a more genial offer from the playwright and actors who have entertained them. ‘If we shadows have offended,’ he begins, ‘Think but this, and all is mended: / That you have but slumbered here, / While these visions did appear’ (5.1.414-7). For Nashe, visions seen in sleep, like Robin, are mostly harmless; they seldom have prophetic significance, and in most cases signify little more than the quality or otherwise of the last meal you have eaten (Terrors of the Night, 233). Robin’s dream, too, is no more than a ‘weak and idle theme’, and its idleness is not threatening (5.1.418). If it is pardoned, the players will ‘mend’ or improve their performance next time; if they escape the hissing of envious serpents among their spectators they ‘will make amends ere long’; and finally, generosity from their audience will strengthen the bond of imaginative friendship or amity among the citizens and their entertainers: ‘Give me your hands, if we be friends, / And Robin shall restore amends’ (5.1.421-9, my emphasis). The theatre-haters insisted that the playwrights had failed to amend or reform their plays despite endless promises of amendment. Robin makes the process of amendment a general one, healing rifts and bridging gaps between friendly co-habitants of the linked spaces of playhouse and city, and exorcising the demons that had been introduced into those spaces by the serpentine hissing of ungenerous prudes.

Robin Goodfellow and Bottom’s Dream
[17]  It is perhaps worth mentioning one more way in which Shakespeare’s Robin both evokes and counters the anti-theatrical prejudice through interference with sleep. His decision to replace Bottom’s head with the head of an ass, then obtrude him into the presence of the sleeping Titania, in whose arms he is afterwards lulled asleep to the strains of seductive music, is another knowing reference to the Tudor controversy over the beneficence or devilishness of drama. As early as the 1540s, the schoolmaster-playwright John Redford introduced a scene into his moral interlude Wit and Science in which the schoolboy-hero Wit is danced into a state of exhaustion by a seductive female Vice, then lulled to drowsiness in her arms. As he dozes, the Vice’s son Ignorance places his fool’s cap on Wit’s shoulders: a cap no doubt endowed with the usual pair of ass’s ears. On waking, it is some time before Wit becomes aware of his transformation; and if ever Shakespeare saw a performance of Wit and Science or one of its variants, it seems unlikely he would have forgotten the peals of laughter that greeted Wit’s puzzlement at the reaction of those around him to his changed appearance.

[18]  The Vice who seduced Wit into this compromising somnolence was called Idleness, a term often used by the theatre-haters to designate the unproductive activities of players. Her rival in the play is a Virtue called Honest Recreation – and again, this is the virtue defenders of the theatre liked to champion, insisting on the necessity for relaxing and instructive entertainment in the midst of one’s daily labour, and claiming that the theatre could provide such entertainment more fully than any other art-form. Redford’s Honest Recreation has nothing but contempt for Idleness; but any attack of hers on the Vice is pre-empted by the Vice herself, who launches a devastating verbal assault on Honest Recreation that anticipates in its wording the polemic of the theatre-haters in the 1570s and 80s. Honest Recreation, says Idleness, is nothing but a fake, a common player or mummer who uses the mask of virtue to cover her vices:

The dyvyll and hys dam can not devyse
More devlyshnes then by the doth ryse
Under the name of Honest Recreacion:
She, lo, bryngth in her abhominacion!
Mark her dawnsyng, her masking and mummyng.
Where more concupiscence then ther cummyng? (Redford 1972: 196)

Honest Recreation retaliates with an eloquent humanistic defence of leisure-time activities as a source of intellectual refreshment; but her thunder has been stolen, her name forever muddied, and she retires defeated as soon as she has said her piece, leaving Wit firmly entwined in the embrace of her demonic counterpart Idleness. And here he was to be found, again and again, throughout the rest of the sixteenth century. Two more versions of the story of Wit and Science were staged in the 1560s and 70s (The Marriage of Wit and Science and Francis Merbury’s The Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom), each of which replayed the scene where Wit gets saddled with a fool’s cap in his sleep. In the early 1580s a version of the play was acted called The Play of Plays and Pastimes, which responded to Stephen Gosson’s attack on the theatre by depicting Life lulled asleep by Honest Recreation herself – not by her vicious substitute – then entertained with Comedy when she wakes (Kinney 1974: 181-3). And Redford’s play was reworked at least three more times in the following decade: once in The Cobbler’s Prophecy (c. 1590), a comedy by the celebrated clown Robert Wilson, where the god Mars is lulled asleep by Venus until startled into action by a comic cobbler; once in Anthony Munday’s Sir Thomas More (c. 1593), where More takes part in a performance of The Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom; and once in the Inns of Court entertainment The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, whose entire plot is ultimately derived from Redford’s. Shakespeare helped to revise Sir Thomas More for performance, perhaps in the early 1600s. It seems beyond the bounds of possibility that he should not have known the plot, at least, of Wit and Science, and its affiliation with the theatrical controversy. And read as another reworking of this plot, Bottom’s transformation tells us a good deal about his creator’s attitude to the theatre at this stage in his career.

[19]  Bottom the weaver is an actor – albeit a very bad one. His designation as one of the ‘rude mechanicals’ – the phrase Robin applies to them (3.2.9) – associates him with the standard insult levelled at actors and non-university playwrights by two of the so-called University Wits of the 1580s, Greene and Nashe, both of whom saw acting as a ‘mechanical’ art, a non-intellectual exercise well suited to the offspring of craftsmen and tradesmen who practised it. So when Puck invests Bottom with the head of an ass it seems no more than he deserves, as an upstart crow who plans to raise his presumptuous voice in the presence of royalty against all the principles of classical decorum.

[20]  Yet the weaver responds to his predicament with astonishing dignity. He refuses to be frightened by the insults levelled at him (he tells his fellow craftsmen that in accusing him of monstrosity they are merely exposing themselves as ‘ass-heads’ or fools, 3.1.111), and sings to keep up his courage. His song acts like that of a mermaid or Siren on Titania’s senses; she becomes ‘enamoured of his note’ (3.1.131), much as audiences were said by the theatre-haters to be roused to lustful paroxysms by the melodic blandishments of the stage. Yet when she declares her love for him he remains both rational and scrupulously courteous. ‘Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that’, he tells her, and later denies her statement that he is ‘as wise as he is beautiful’ – he lays claim only to the pragmatic ‘wit’ he needs to ‘get out of this wood’ (3.1.135-42). This practical or mechanical intelligence manifests itself, too, in his philosophy: ‘reason and love,’ he says, ‘keep little company together nowadays – the more the pity that some honest neighbours will not make them friends’ (3.1.136-9). For him, the love that matters is the love that binds communities, the love between neighbours which he has clearly provoked among his own neighbours, the fellow craftsmen and actors who mourn his absence at the end of Act Four, just before he is miraculously restored to them. Bottom is a fool only in that he voices popular wisdom, fails to take advantage of Titania’s infatuation for selfish ends, and refuses to modify his behaviour in the presence of power, as a sycophantic courtier would have done. His deportment to Titania’s fairy servants is impeccable; and when Titania tells them to ‘Tie up my love’s tongue; bring him silently’ (3.1.191), it is not an injunction to restrain the ribaldry of an unruly clown, as it would have been in a Redfordian moral interlude, nor yet an act of ritual humiliation, as it would have been in a play by the Elizabethan satirist Robert Wilson, but a means of subduing him to her desire – a desire that is ultimately harmless, to herself, to him, and to their Elizabethan audience.

[21]  The harmlessness of the piece of supernatural theatre Bottom finds himself caught up in is strongly asserted by Puck in the following scene. When he describes the weaver’s transformation to Oberon, Robin laughs at the unnecessary terror of Bottom’s companions when faced with his metamorphosis: ‘Their sense thus weak, lost with their fears thus strong, / Made senseless things begin to do them wrong’ (3.2.27-8). Later, unreasoning terror is mentioned again by Theseus, whose analysis of the workings of ‘strong imagination’ includes the transformation of inanimate harmless objects by panic: ‘in the night, imagining some fear, / How easy is a bush supposed a bear!’ (5.1.18-22). Even the craftsmen are aware of the ease with which terror can be aroused by harmless things: they seek to defuse any fear that might be generated by their own theatrical performance by drawing attention to its theatricality, so that the lion in their play gives an elaborate and wholly unnecessary explanation of the principle of dramatic illusion to its courtly spectators. Both the craftsmen’s very reasonable fear of Bottom, and their less reasonable fear that the ladies in their audience will fear them, are profoundly funny; and the implication is that the fear of the theatre evinced by its critics is not much less so.

[22]  Malice is simply absent from Robin’s actions, as it is from those of the well-intentioned craftsmen. When Oberon rebukes him for administering the love-juice to the wrong lover, for instance, the goblin repeatedly insists that he ‘mistook’, although he is delighted by the outcome of his errors. Once his cruel but harmless ‘sport’ is over, it assumes the status of ‘a dream and fruitless vision’ (3.2.371) for the Athenian lovers who were its victims; and Titania’s fleeting affair with Bottom – something mistaken on her part, not maliciously intended – also ends by being dismissed as ‘the fierce vexation of a dream’ (4.1.68). Like Titania and the lovers, audiences will leave the theatre without having been adversely affected by what they saw there; restored to what Robin calls ‘True delight’ (3.2.455) – responsible pleasure, something the theatre-haters don’t seem able to imagine – in the things and people that are dear to them, they will return to waking life with nothing but an enhanced sense of its fragile beauty and comic unreasonableness. And having left the stage, they will be no more tempted to engage in any over-critical analysis of their ‘most rare’ theatrical ‘vision’ than they would to analyse a dream after a feast (4.1.202). If they sought to do so, they would show themselves to be asses, transformed to fools by the spectacle they have witnessed, just as those who take exception to satire transform themselves into satire’s targets by their over-sensitive response to its gibes.

[23]  This, at least, is what Bottom implies when he wakes from the dramatic role of Titania’s lover in Act 4 scene 1. ‘I have had a most rare vision,’ he says, and ‘Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream’ (4.1.202-4). But he couches this observation in the language of theology, adding a somewhat jumbled but instantly recognizable version of Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was’ (4.1.207-10). As we’ve seen, Robin Goodfellow and Dick Tarlton were not afraid to get themselves mixed up with theology, despite the bloody history of religious controversy throughout sixteenth-century Europe. At the bottom of Bottom’s theatrical dream there may be a serious point about the working of the imagination at all levels of society. After all, real dreams could, Nashe tells us, be heaven-sent ‘visions’ containing genuine prophecies, even if the bulk of them were nothing but outlets for the superfluous matter engendered by the human digestive system (1972: 235). Prophecies could provoke social change, insurrection, maybe even revolution; visions could start religions or spark off heresies; that’s why there was such careful legislation in England against men’s claims to be visionaries or prophets throughout the Tudor period. Bottom awakes these controversial matters even as he dismisses them, just as Robin Goodfellow and his fairy companions evoke the demonic associations of drama even as they dismiss them. The magic of the theatre, and its status as the space where human dreams and nightmares can be realized as nowhere else, remain as potent at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as they were at the beginning. And it’s partly thanks to Shakespeare’s clever predecessors, with all the goblins, ghosts, and visions they invoked on stage and printed page, that this is so. The time has come to wake these spirits from their long sleep, set them loose once again, and listen carefully to what they have to tell us.

University of Glasgow


[1] An early version of this paper was given at the World Shakespeare Congress, Brisbane 2006, in a panel on early modern sleep organized by Garrett Sullivan and Evelyn Tribble. I am very grateful to all the participants in the panel, especially Jeffrey Marsten and Rebecca Totaro. [back to text]


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