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Revisiting the Language Issue: The Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) and Highland Education, c. 1660–1754

Revisiting the Language Issue: The Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) and Highland Education, c. 1660–1754

Jamie Kelly

​[1]​ Incorporated by royal letters patent in 1709, the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) was, for much of the eighteenth century, the only organisation of its kind operating in the Highlands and Islands.​[1]​ Its mission was to establish a network of charity schools in the region to provide religious instruction and basic literary education to remote Highland communities. Schooling, it was believed, was the means by which Jacobitism and Catholicism would be stamped out in the region, and by which hearts and minds would be won for the post-1690 Revolution settlement and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The SSPCK also aimed to inculcate values of hard work, discipline and thrift, which was to facilitate the spread of manufactories, thereby making the Highlands a useful, improved, and productive part of the British state. However, one aspect of the SSPCK’s mission has overshadowed all others in the historiography: its attitude towards Gaelic and, in turn, its role in the language’s decline. Indeed, from very early on, the Society prioritised English over Gaelic literacy in its schools, and it was not until 1766 that the teaching of Gaelic literacy was formally permitted. This has led many scholars to concentrate on the harm that they believe was inflicted by the Society, by alienating Gaelic from literacy and nurturing a negative attitude towards Gaelic in formal education. Victor Durkacz, for instance, writes that:

literacy, when it entered the Highlands in the eighteenth century through the [SSPCK’s] charity schools, made the English language its medium. The resulting alienation of the mother tongue from education did incalculable harm to the Gaelic language, destroying the people’s confidence in themselves and in their culture. (1983: 23)

Charles Withers describes the Society as the ‘single most important instrument of anglicisation in the 1700s’, which succeeded in ‘devaluing Gaelic in the in the Highland mind’ (1988: 122–36, 405). These approaches find their roots in Michael Hechter’s earlier work on ‘internal colonialism’, which presents the forcible realignment of the ‘Celtic fringe’ to better serve the needs of English-speaking regions as a key part of the process of British state-building in the early modern period (1975: 30–34, 58, 81–87). Perhaps the SSPCK’s fiercest critic, John Lorne Campbell portrays the organisation as the chief perpetrator of ‘a calculated, well-financed attempt, backed by constant political pressure, to destroy [their Gaelic] language and their religion’ (Campbell 1984: 91). A dedicated Gaelic scholar and devout Catholic convert, Campbell saw an intimate link between Catholicism and Gaelic culture. In turn, he traced the declining fortunes of Gaelic language and culture back to the protestant missionary crusade of the eighteenth century, in which the SSPCK played a crucial role.

​[2]​ The SSPCK’s archive (National Records of Scotland [NRS], GD95), however, remains largely untapped, and historians have yet to consider fully the ways in which SSPCK schools were understood and received by the Highland communities they sought to affect. Withers and Durkacz both presume that, to some unknown extent, Highlanders must have resisted the introduction and support of schools, both before and after the SSPCK’s establishment, due to the government’s avowed aim of using education as a means to weaken Gaelic (Durkacz 1983: 46, 50–1; Withers 1984: 30, 122). It has, however, been demonstrated that attitudes towards Gaelic in education were already fully formed within and without the Gàidhealtachd long before the advent of the SSPCK (Bannerman 1983; MacCoinnich 2008; MacGregor 2006; 2012). Furthermore, some studies reveal that formal schooling was much more common in the region than is generally recognised (MacKinnon 1936; Withrington 1986). However, scholars have yet to produce a study which takes both the pre-existing legacy of schooling and the established patterns of literacy in the region and consider how the Society may have fit into this.

​[3]​ Moreover, few scholars have fully considered the SSPCK’s rationale for prioritising English. Many assume the elimination of Gaelic was the primary aspiration of the Society but neglect the wider context which shaped its policy and rhetoric. While Durkacz and Withers make use of the SSPCK collection in their studies, they rely on much of the same—highly selective—evidence to support an overarching, linear narrative of linguistic and cultural declension in the Gàidhealtachd (Withers 1984: 120–37; Durkacz 1983: 57–72). Advances have since been made, however, in broadening our understanding of the SSPCK beyond the narrow lens of linguistic and cultural conflict. In his study of the church’s Royal Bounty scheme, Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart (2003) paints a vivid picture of the political and religious situation in the Highlands in the 1720s and 30s, when the region was on the brink of both the first wave of mass emigration and the final Jacobite rising. The SSPCK features prominently, as one agent among many operating within the framework of the British state, struggling to realise its vision of an ideal Highlands, and often wavering in its priorities. Nathan Gray’s thesis (2011) explores the religious and charitable origins of the SSPCK, while Clare Loughlin’s recent article (2018) explores the theological underpinnings of the SSPCK’s mission in the Highlands and America. These studies shed light on the religious motivations which governed the Society’s early policies for schools, in particular its desire to secure and extend Presbyterianism. Giving children access to the scriptures was seen as an effective antidote to Catholicism, while regular recitation of the established church’s Shorter Catechism, was intended to instil Presbyterian belief among Highland children (Prunier 2004: 123–131; Loughlin 2018: 194–195). Gray’s study suggests that the absence of a Bible in the Scottish Gaelic vernacular in the first half of the eighteenth century may have led the Society to prioritise English as a largely practical matter (Gray 2011: 13). Regardless, the SSPCK collection remains to this day an underutilised resource, and scholars have yet to produce a comprehensive study of the organisation, which considers its place within the framework of the eighteenth century British state and empire, and explains how the issue of Gaelic fit into this. This article looks at an understudied organisation during a formative period of Scottish and British history. The Society sought to facilitate the integration of Highland communities then considered to exist on the margins of mainstream Scottish society, in an era when Scottish political agency was marginalised by the structures of the embryonic British state and empire with its centre in Westminster.

Patterns of Language Use in the Early Modern Highlands

​[4]​ Withers and Durkacz suggest that Gaelic society did not appreciate, nor did it have any immediate use for English literacy at the time of the SSPCK’s foundation. In fact, they argue that its spread was detrimental to the very substance of Highland life, feeding into the common perception that the SSPCK’s efforts to teach English literacy through its schools were unprecedented, unnecessary and traumatic (Durkacz 1983: 23; Withers 1984: 127–8; 1988: 405). This was paralleled and exacerbated by the Society’s unwillingness to countenance the teaching of Gaelic literacy in its schools; something that Durkacz claims was ‘in effect casting away the key to the Highlanders’ loyalty’; essentially an obstacle of the Society’s own making (1983: 23–30, 52–72; Jones 1938: 194). He writes that:

The inescapable conclusion is that the key figures in the Scottish charity school movement, because of their political prejudices against the Gaelic language, set out deliberately to alienate it from literacy. (1983: 30)

The choice which faced the SSPCK, however, was far more complex than Durkacz suggests. The linguistic situation in the Gàidhealtachd at the beginning of the eighteenth century was fraught with complexities, one of which was the non-survival of Classical Gaelic: the literary dialect which had previously enabled written communication between the literati of the Gaelic-speaking world. The cause of Gaelic literacy was complicated further by regional variations in the dialects of Gaelic spoken, which could compromise the ability of Gaels from different parts of Gàidhealtachd to comprehend one another, raising the issue of how to agree on a literary standard. These issues, among others, resulted in doubts, stemming from the Gàidhealtachd as well as the anglophone Lowlands, regarding the utility and necessity of Gaelic literacy. In the studies of Withers and Durkacz, however, the perspectives of ordinary Gaels are notable by their absence. Just as they overlook the extent of schooling in the region, both scholars downplay the role of Scots, English and Latin as languages of record in the Gàidhealtachd centuries prior to 1709. A close analysis of the patterns of language use in the Gàidhealtachd in the late-medieval and early modern periods can shed some light on these complex issues.

​[5]​ From the twelfth century, the Gaelic literati of Scotland and Ireland composed texts using a high-register literary dialect of the language, denoted by scholars as Classical Common Gaelic. It was an artificial language: its grammar and vocabulary, along with the strict metrical requirements for the composition of poetry in it, remained virtually unchanged for 500 years. Formulated in Ireland, it served as a vehicle of High Gaelic culture across a singular cultural province which, in theory, spanned from Cork to Cape Wrath (Thomson 1968; Black 1989; MacGregor 2000: 81–4; McLeod & Bateman 2007: xvii–xxx; MacCoinnich 2008: 309–10). This environment privileged the pursuit of activities such as poetry, history, law, music and medicine. The agents inhabiting this cultural world were the learned orders or aos dàna (folk of gifts): families such as the MacMhuirichs and Beatons, who pursued these disciplines and provided services for their patrons on a formal, professional basis (Bannerman 1998; Thomson 1968). In Argyll and the Isles we find that the language—in its unadulterated ‘Irish form’—was used in the late-medieval period. Indeed, it is from this region alone that evidence survives for the use of Classical Gaelic as a written language, predominantly for medical texts and recording poetry. (McLeod 2004: 36; MacCoinnich 2008: 310). ​[2]​

​[6]​ Knowledge of Classical Gaelic, however, certainly extended beyond this frontier. For example, the famous sixteenth century miscellany, the Book of the Dean of Lismore, compiled and maintained in Fortingall, Perthshire (c. 1512–1542) contains specimens of Classical Gaelic poetry composed in both Scotland and Ireland. It is significant, however, that the author recorded this poetry using a spelling system based on Middle Scots. It is still a matter of debate whether or not the scribes understood Classical Common Gaelic when transmitted orally, but the idiosyncratic way in which they recorded the poetry indicates that there were problems in their comprehension. Nevertheless, it is almost certain that the scribes were much more familiar with Scots and Latin written forms. Indeed, these were the languages in which they had received their education (MacCoinnich 2008: 309–10, 316, 324, 329; Meek 1989; MacGregor 2012: 127–35). While the poetry contained in the manuscript is mainly in Gaelic, we find that all of the prose is recorded in Latin or Scots. Martin MacGregor maintains that this reflected the degree to which Latin and Scots were established as normative languages of written prose throughout the Scottish kingdom because of their official status within church and government. A modus operandi emerged whereby Gaelic speakers embraced Scots as a basic language of written communication, whilst Gaelic was preferred for oral contexts. According to MacGregor, this process ‘was governed not by diktat but rather pragmatic and widespread acceptance of language status and roles’ (2012: 131–2; MacCoinnich 2008: 314).

​[7]​ Indeed, recent scholarship suggests that, by the end of the sixteenth century, Scots literacy among the Gaelic aristocracy, gentry and clergy was the norm, even in areas where the classical tradition retained some influence. According to MacGregor, ‘since the early fifteenth century, it had been practically incumbent upon the political elite of Gaelic Scotland to communicate with central authority in English’ (2006: 145–6). The MacLeods of Lewis, a kindred which sustained strong links with Ireland and came to be considered as the epitome of Irish-influenced incivility in the sixteenth century, demonstrate familiarity with Scots legal forms and practice throughout the period. As MacCoinnich points out, this was borne out of necessity as the MacLeods had to operate within the framework of the Scottish state (2008: 320, 331).

​[8]​ In Argyll and the Isles, Classical Gaelic appears to have only been adopted for a few select purposes, such as for poetry and medical tracts, while the majority of surviving records of the business of clan chiefs are overwhelmingly in Scots or Latin (MacCoinnich 2008: 314). Here, John Carswell, Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, serves as an exception that proves the rule. His Foirm na n-Urrnuidheadh (1567)—a reworking of John Knox’s First Book of Discipline and the first book, in Ireland or Scotland, to be published in Gaelic—stands out as a landmark, particularly as the momentum of Gaelic printing came to a halt following its publication. Nevertheless, despite Carswell’s proficiency in Classical Gaelic, each of his letters, even those addressed to fellow Gaels, are written in Scots. Jane Dawson asserts that this ‘reflected the assumption that it was the appropriate language for this type of communication’ (Dawson 1997: 7). That Classical Gaelic was the medium of the Foirm almost certainly indicates that Carswell’s patron, Archibald Campbell the 5th Earl of Argyll, commissioned the text with an Irish (pan-Gàidhealtachd), rather than a purely Scottish audience, in mind (Meek 1998: 40, 47; MacCoinnich 2008: 323). Here, the paradigm of different of languages for different purposes rings true. As Scots (then English), and Latin, came to be regarded as normative languages of business, it looks likely that literacy in Scots was already prevalent among the Highland elite before the inauguration of the Statutes of Iona in 1609: the first piece of legislation to require the Hebridean elite to send their heirs to the Lowlands to be instructed in English (Bannerman 1983; MacCoinnich 2008: 320–1, 332; MacGregor 2006: 144–7). Furthermore, such widespread acceptance of English and Latin as languages of record may have led to a greater impetus in the Highlands for the establishment of schools from the early seventeenth century onwards (MacKinnon 1936).

​[9]​ Despite the precedent set by Carswell, in using Classical Gaelic as a medium for religious literature, in Scotland the language largely fell out of use by 1700. Despite subsequent efforts by the Synod of Argyll in the mid-seventeenth century to promote Gaelic as a medium for religious texts, there is little evidence that this gained traction outwith Argyll and the Isles in this period (Thomson 1962). In a wider Scottish context, the seventeenth century also witnessed the gradual transition from Scots to English in written forms. The removal of the court to London in 1603, and subsequent tumults which defined the course of the seventeenth century, served only to draw the Highland gentry and clergy southwards, making literacy in English all the more necessary (Horsbroch 1999: 3–14; MacCoinnich 2008: 321, 339). The upheavals of the seventeenth century also led to a sharp decline in patronage for those involved in the Classical tradition. No patronage meant no schools; no schools meant no new recruits and, thus, knowledge of the language withered or went underground (Bannerman 1998: 120–33). Although the Synod of Argyll made progress towards a translation of the scriptures in the Scottish vernacular in the seventeenth century, this never reached publication and the manuscripts were have never come to light (Meek 1988: 11–12).

​[10]​ The litmus test for the vitality of Classical Gaelic literacy in late seventeenth and early-eighteenth century Scotland was the reception of the so-called Irish Bible. Indeed, much of the debate surrounding the SSPCK and Gaelic centres around the Society’s refusal to use this version of the Bible in its schools. The book itself was published in 1685, under the patronage of the Irish philanthropist Sir Robert Boyle, although it was an amalgamation of earlier translations carried out by William O’Donnell, archbishop of Tuam (1602) and William Bedell, bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh (c. 1640; Meek 1988: 10). Its language is Classical Gaelic in a prose form, and its typeface is based on Irish script (Ò Baoill 2010: 17). Shortly after its publication, James Kirkwood, a Scottish Episcopalian minister exiled in England, contacted Boyle to secure leftover copies, believing that these could be used by the Highland clergy in lieu of any Scottish Gaelic scriptures. He also hoped that these would be accessible to ordinary worshippers, providing a basis for mass literacy in Gaelic (Durkacz 1983: 17–23). The Irish font proved to be the first obstacle, as Gaelic-speaking ministers were much more accustomed to reading Roman script. In response, Kirkwood arranged to have Robert Kirk, the Episcopalian minister of Aberfoyle, transliterate the text in a roman script, make modest morphological changes to the verbs, and provide a gloss for certain unfamiliar Classical Gaelic terms. It was believed that this impression would be more familiar to Gaelic-speaking ministers and, as the campaign for charity schools in the Highlands increased in momentum, Kirkwood was insistent on using the Bibles as a basis for literary instruction (Durkacz 1978: 31; Black 2008: 75).

​[11]​ While more research is undoubtedly required into the distribution and reception of the Irish Bible, the available evidence suggests that most English-literate Gaels simply would not have been familiar with the Classical Gaelic used in the text; indeed, some may have been wholly unacquainted with Gaelic orthography (Meek 1990: 3). This is testified for Ross-shire, in a letter written by Angus Morison, episcopal minister of Contin, addressed to the Earl Marischal’s chaplain, Patrick Dunbreck. In 1713, Morison advises against the printing of a second edition of Kirk’s Bible, stating:

it seems that manny think yt the generality of the highlanders can read the Irish or at least easily acquire it, [but] believe me few ministers can read it skillfully & to read it unskillfully seldome fails to confound the Subject […] I know not six that can read the Irish without loss & perhaps not twenty in all Scotland, nor do I know, except only one, that can read the Irish, but can read the English farr better.

Elsewhere in the letter, Morison described ‘the reading of it [Classical Gaelic]’ to be ‘more difficult than that of any other language that I know’ (NRS, CH12/12/817). Morison—also known by his Gaelic moniker, Aonghas Dubh—was far from an outsider in Gaelic society. Morison was a native of Lewis, and alumnus of the Stornoway grammar school, where the curriculum was focused on English and Latin. Yet, he was a fluent Gaelic speaker; son to John Morison, tacksman of Bragar; and brother to the famed Gaelic musician Roderick Morison, An Clàrsair Dall (the Blind Harper). He was also a composer of Gaelic verse, a dedicated Jacobite, and identified strongly as ‘of the Highland blood’ (Fasti vii: 30; Matheson 1970: xxxiii–xliii; NLS, MS 1401, fol. 16). ​[3]​ Nevertheless, Morison found the Classical Gaelic of Kirk’s Bible to be particularly difficult to decipher, partly because he was not familiar with written Gaelic and partly because it was different from the vernacular he spoke. This is also reflected in Duncan MacRae’s Gaelic verse in the Fernaig Manuscript, for which he adopted an English orthography due to his unfamiliarity with traditional forms of written Gaelic (MacCoinnich 2008: 330n).

​[12]​ For all of Kirkwood’s good will, tolerance and evangelical fervour—much commended by Withers and Durkacz—in supporting the use of Irish Bibles in charity schools, the fact that ordained ministers struggled to read the text would not bode well for the ability of schoolmasters to teach it (Durkacz 1983: 18–30; Withers 1984: 43–5). At the time of publication, the majority of literate Gaels simply could not read the book. For most ministers, the English Bible, written in the language in which they received their literary education, was entirely serviceable. Many relied on the English as a platform from which they could translate and adapt the message ex tempore from a single definitive text to better suit local dialects and customs (Cheape 2004: 19; Black: 2001: xiv–xv; Meek 2002: 84, 90).​[4]​ Donald Meek has even suggested that scriptures may have been largely preserved within the oral tradition, effectively constituting virtual oral Bibles, which could be consulted to embellish pulpit rhetoric, or provide spiritual edification to parishioners in lieu of the minister (96). This certainly explains the deep biblical knowledge exhibited by many non-literate Gaelic poets, and the continued functionality of the Gaelic sermon as a fundamentally oral art (100–4; MacLeod Hill 2016: 56). To many, Gaelic and English were considered to be not mutually exclusive, but complementary. Even beyond the eighteenth century, it was entirely conceivable in the minds of many Scottish Gaels that both languages could happily coexist within the respective contexts assigned to them by Gaelic society. Scots, then English, served as a language of literacy—for business, correspondence and engagement with church and government—while Gaelic continued to thrive in an oral context; far from the zero-sum linguistic conflict portrayed by Withers and Durkacz.

Education in the Highlands Before the SSPCK

​[13]​ Most studies concerned with education in the early modern Highlands have argued that the region was all but devoid of schooling until outside agencies such as the SSPCK entered the scene (MacKay 1914: 198; Jones 1938: 165–76; Durkacz 1983; Withers 1984; Houston 1985: 74, 82). Vast parishes, scattered population settlement and geographical obstacles are all cited as factors obstructing the establishment, support and penetration of schools in the region. However, many of these scholars maintain that cultural distinctiveness played a substantial, if not the most significant, role. As the education acts of 1616, 1633, 1646 and 1696 illustrate a desire on the part of the government to remove Gaelic through English schooling, so the presumption goes that there must have been widespread hostility to formal education in the Highlands (Withers 1984: 29–30). Durkacz, for instance, concludes that:

Obviously the various education acts passed by the Scottish parliament between 1616 and 1696 had little impact on the massive educational problems of the Highlands. (1983: 46)

He goes on to argue that, to some unknown extent, there must have been resistance to the introduction of SSPCK schools ‘in the light of the attitude adopted […] towards the Gaelic language’ (50). It should be noted, however, that the arguments of Withers and Durkacz reflect the official line taken by the SSPCK from its foundation, that, to keep ordinary Highlanders

in those wretched dependencies, the propagation of true Christian Knowledge, and of the English Tongue, has all along been opposed by Popish Heads of Clans. (SSPCK 1714: 6)

Of course, as a charity organisation reliant on donations and subscriptions, it benefitted the SSPCK to an extent to paint such a bleak picture of the spiritual and educational state of Highlands. By reinforcing the perception of the region as one alienated from the rest of the kingdom and wilfully kept ignorance by a vindictive Catholic elite, the Society’s mission gained credibility, thus serving to loosen the purse-strings of would-be contributors. It is a great irony that the SSPCK records themselves are replete with references to schools pre-dating the organisation. Even as the eighteenth century progressed, the SSPCK found little issue with disregarding a multitude of local schooling initiatives—mainly as these did not fit their rigid definition of ‘legal parochial schools’—to highlight the continued barbarity and ignorance of the Highlands (Withrington 1962). Furthermore, it has been demonstrated beyond any serious doubt that Highland Catholics were just as likely to seek education as their Protestant neighbours (Prunier 2004: 123–65; Roberts & MacWilliam 2007). We should, therefore, be cautious about taking these claims at face value, as Withers and Durkacz have done. Both scholars maintain a view of Highland-Lowland interaction that focuses primarily on differences between the regions, glossing over any similarities and ambiguities, instead highlighting the role of Lowland ‘cultural intrusion’ as the main driver in the decline of Highland exceptionalism.

​[14]​ In 1986, Donald Withrington warned historians to be more cautious when asserting that distinctions in language and culture necessarily inhibited schooling in the region. While admitting that the several education acts referred to by these scholars contain an undeniable attack on Gaelic, he argues that this was but ‘one element in a generalised policy aimed at political and social stability’, which at several junctures, corresponding neatly to the dating of each of the education acts, was being disrupted in the Highlands (Withrington 1986: 61). Accordingly, Withrington argues that we should pay more attention to the ways in which ‘economic or social (perhaps religious or political) pressures’, shared throughout Scotland, and which affected the ability of communities to support schools and schoolmasters, could be ‘exacerbated [in the Highlands] by greater poverty or remoteness’ (62). This perspective raises the possibility that the educational problems in the Highlands at the turn of the century were not necessarily related to demand, but rather to issues of supply. To follow up on this hypothesis, however, historians face undeniable difficulties, not the least of which is the sparse and scattered nature of the evidence.

​[15]​ It is often presumed that the paucity of source material for schooling in the Highlands is, in its own right, adequately revealing of its poor state. It cannot be denied that, for most Highland regions, the quantity and quality of records are much worse than for most areas of the Lowlands, and the further north and west we cast our eyes, the worse the situation tends to become. However, Scottish parochial schools, both Highland and Lowland, were not centrally managed, nor did schoolmasters tend to adopt the sort of record-keeping practices that would have produced contained collections for individual schools. While evidence can certainly be gleaned from the records of the agencies responsible for parochial education—above all in the records of local church courts—references to schools are generally scattered unevenly throughout. Indeed, these difficulties are testified in the studies of Withrington, Beale and Boyd, who explore the early history of education in Haddington, Fife and Ayrshire respectively (Withrington 1963, 1965; Beale 1983; Boyd 1961). In this respect, we could argue that the evidence for schools in many Lowland parishes can be equally lacking, yet few historians doubt that many Lowland parishes were adequately provided for. We must, therefore, contend with the possibility that, even if more church court records for Highland regions were accessible, they may not yield enough information to indicate satisfactorily the extent and consistency of schooling over time, as is the case with much of the Lowland record. By supplementing church courts records, where possible, with other sources—such as estate chartularies, receipts, legal documents, private correspondences, and even SSPCK minutes—it is possible to piece together a more complete picture for Highland education.

​[16]​ The records of the Synod of Argyll are perhaps the richest source of evidence we have for formal schooling in the Highlands. This undeniably energetic church court demonstrated particular concern with education in the seventeenth century, and maintained detailed records which remain extant and in a good condition today. There is, however, a substantial gap in the record between 1661 and 1687, from the restoration of episcopacy in the church up to James VII’s indulgence. The minutes between 1639 and 1661 have since been published by the Scottish History Society (MacTavish 1943). The surviving manuscripts were the subject of an article published by Donald MacKinnon (1936), which attempts to represent the extent of schooling in the region between 1638 and 1709. By parliamentary acts of 1644 and 1690, respectively, the vacant stipends within the bounds of the Synod were made available for educational purposes, facilitating a large-scale expansion of the schooling system on the western mainland and in the Hebrides. For the post-Revolution period, MacKinnon traces no less than 25 schools established by 1698 with these funds in various locations between Kintyre and Lewis, with an additional 14 itinerant ambulatory schools and 5 grammar schools (52). He locates fixed schools in Campbeltown, Dunoon, Kilmallie, Skye, Raasay, Islay, Jura, Arran, Iona and Bute, among other places. It is noteworthy that that these schools were dedicated to teaching English and Latin and not, as far as we are aware, any Gaelic (53–4). MacKinnon argues convincingly that the work of the SSPCK in the region after 1709 ‘was largely auxiliary to that of the synod and much more limited in scope’ (53). Accounting for the gap in the record for the Restoration, MacKinnon argues ‘the cause of education in Argyll and the Isles had been crippled by the appropriation of the vacant stipends’ for the maintenance of the restored Episcopalian clergy (50–1). However, this has since been cast into question. While a shortage of funds may have precluded the sort of expansion carried out between 1690 and 1698, Episcopalian control did not lead to a decline in local interest in education. Indeed, Allan Macinnes argues that the Episcopalian clergy ‘approved and furthered the Presbyterian endeavours of the 1640s to extend schooling in Highland parishes’ (1996: 176). Education certainly remained a prerequisite for producing qualified ministers regardless of church polity, and provision in Gaelic for Highland parishes remained a major preoccupation (Withrington 1986; Kennedy 2014: 315–16). This suggests that the period may have seen more continuity than disruption.

​[17]​ Support for education in the Highlands, however, was far from confined to Argyll and the Isles. In 1918, John Hunter, minister of Rattray in Perthshire, published two hefty volumes on The Diocese and Presbytery of Dunkeld, 1660-1689; the second of which includes an overview of education in the region and exhaustive list of schoolmasters (87–101). Using Hunter’s study in conjunction with Withers’ list of Gaelic-speaking parishes, Withrington traces a steady growth in provision from 1636 onwards, continuing through the Restoration into the post-Revolution period. While in 1635 only one or two of the 21 Gaelic-speaking parishes (5%) had schools, between 1636 and 1670 we find that 15 parishes (71%) were provided at some time, with some operating continuously throughout the period. Between 1671 and 1700, at least 18 out of the 21 Gaelic-speaking parishes in Perthshire (86%) were supplied with both school and schoolmaster. Moreover, these were not simply the Lowland-border parishes that Durkacz maintained were more likely to provide schools (Durkacz 1983: 46). Moulin, Weem, Logierait, Blair Atholl, Dull, and Fortingall all contained at least one school by 1690 (Withrington 1986: 64–5). When the need to improve educational facilities in the Highlands became more politically expedient in the 1690s, King William arranged a gift of £150 Stirling to be paid out yearly from the Bishopric of Dunkeld for the use of Highland schools in the shires of Perth, Dumbarton and Stirling (Leneman 1982: 154–5; Atholl Muniments [NRAS 234] Box 45/9/124).

​[18]​ With regards to schoolmasters, we find that many were university graduates, while others were university students looking to supplement their income. Many of them instructed children not only English, but in Latin grammar, reading, writing, arithmetic and mathematics (Withrington 1986: 65). And the curriculum was not determined purely by the schoolmasters, but often in accordance with local demands for specific subjects. Adam Fergusson, father and namesake of the later philosopher and historian Dr Adam Ferguson, left the school of Moulin after some years because the schoolmaster was deficient in his knowledge of Latin. He soon returned, however, in 1683, when the minister recruited a more qualified schoolmaster: a recent graduate from King’s College, Aberdeen, Duncan Menzies (Fagg 1994: 289–90).

​[19]​ A similar trajectory can be traced in other Highland regions. In the Gaelic-speaking parishes of Aberdeenshire, Withrington identifies schools in the parishes of Glenmuick, Tullich and Glengairn in 1696 and 1699; Kildrummy in 1646, 1676 and 1680; Glenbuchat in 1687; and Strathdon in 1667, 1675, 1683 and 1686; and Aboyne and Glentanar, where a Mr James Smith, student in divinity, was appointed schoolmaster in 1700 (Withrington 1986: 65; Simpson 1947: 88–96; CH2/602/1: 5). In Banffshire, at least 15 of the 17 Gaelic-speaking parishes, had schools between 1671 and 1700, including a grammar school established in Inveraven in 1633. This is matched in Nairnshire where, from 1650 onwards, we find schoolmasters appointed for all four Gaelic-speaking parishes—Auldearn, Ardclach, Cawdor and Nairn—and a reputable grammar school in Fortrose, which was maintained by a mortification from the MacKenzies of Seaforth (Withrington 1986: 65; MacInnes 1951: 227). In Angus, all three Gaelic-speaking parishes—Clova, Cortachy and Lochlee—had schoolmasters teaching Latin grammar by 1690. In Sutherland, schools can be traced in Creich and Strathnaver, from 1630 and 1620 respectively. In the Highland parishes surrounding Loch Lomond, references has been found for schools in Buchanan, Drymen and Luss (Withrington 1986: 65–6).

​[20]​ In Inverness-shire and Ross-shire, we find schools in the lower-lying parishes of Kirkhill and Wardlaw in 1672 and Croy in 1680. There were grammar schools at Petty and Dornoch, as well as the ancient grammar school of Inverness. In these schools, Latin, English, Greek and other subjects were taught (MacKay 1896: l–li; Macinnes 1951: 223). However, schools were also established in the more upland western parishes, including Daviot in 1672, Dingwall in 1663, Kilmorack in 1649, Boleskine some time before 1630, and Kiltarlity and Convith in 1630-33, 1671-74, 1681, and 1684-87 (MacKay 1896: xlviii–li; 1921: 14–17; Withrington 1986: 67). In 1696, the government stepped in to support a grammar school at Maryburgh, near Fort William, with the generous salary of £30 Sterling. In 1690, Colonel John Hill wrote to the Duke of Queensbury, wherein he indicates that ‘the people are very glad of the chartour for Marybarrow [Maryburgh], and of the expectation of a school for their children’ (Fraser 1976: 73).

​[21]​ The Fasti produces names for two schoolmasters in Lochaber – Thomas MacPherson, who served as ‘schoolmaster in Lochaber’ in 1660 before entering the ministry, and James Gettie, ‘sometime schoolmaster of Kilmallie’ before his ordination as minister of Inveraray in 1711 (vol. iv: 11; vi: 355). In 1698, Donald MacMarcus was appointed catechist-schoolmaster for Lochaber, anticipating the Royal Bounty-SSPCK scheme of joint catechist schoolmasters by three decades (NRS, CH2/557/3: 227; see Stiùbhart 2003). References can also be found for a grammar school in Kingussie, which was established with an endowment in 1652, but experienced regular issues procuring these funds which continued into the eighteenth century (Withrington 1986: 66).

​[22]​ This is not to suggest that the Highlands were adequately supplied with schools before 1709. Questions remain regarding the consistency with which these schools operated and the social standing of their attendees. Indeed, the unique problems facing the region—of large, disjointed parishes, mountainous terrain, scattered settlements and the division of land by water—meant countless children went without schooling. In larger parishes, particularly those consolidated into ‘united parishes’ in the seventeenth century, there were often disagreements among tenants and heritors regarding the most suitable location to settle a school. While no parochial school can be traced for the united parishes of Crathie and Braemar, there was a qualified schoolmaster in the parish in the 1700s: a Mr John Hunter, a graduate of King’s College, referred to across sources in 1711 as ‘present schoolmaster in Braemar’ (NRS, GD124/15/1056; GD95/2/1: 248). The following year, the laird of Abergeldie informed minister Adam Fergusson of the main reason why a parochial school had not yet been settled. It appears that many of the inhabitants were unwilling to pay their quota of meal for the schoolmaster ‘unless they could expect to benefite by haveing a school near ym’ (NRS, GD124/15/1051/1–2). In 1699, the Synod of Aberdeen had petitioned the government ‘for obtaining the benefite of his majesties gift for encouraging schoolmasters in Highland parishes’ within their bounds, in order to circumvent this issue. But, unlike with Argyll and Perthshire, government assistance was not forthcoming (NRS, CH2/840/11, 126).

​[23]​ Here, there are parallels to be drawn with Inverness-shire, specifically the united parishes of Moy and Dalarossie, Boleskine and Abertarff, and Daviot and Dunlichty. In 1672, the reason given for the absence of a school in Moy was that ‘the townes within the parochin were far distant one from the other’. In the same year in Boleskine and Abertarff, there was no school ‘in regard the townes in the parish were remote the one from the other, and they had no convenience of boarding children’. In a large united parish, facilities for boarding would have been necessary so that scholars did not have to travel long distances daily. In Daviot, despite earlier successes in erecting a schoolhouse, by 1682 the minister report ‘that they could not nor had any schoolmaster because there was no encouragement for ane, nor no mediat centricall place quhere they could fix a schoole to the satisfactione of all concerned’ (MacKay 1921: 16).

​[24]​ The situation is less clear in Wester Ross due to a lack of surviving records. However, in 1707 the newly erected Synod of Ross, containing the most northerly mainland parishes, claimed that the main obstacle to schooling in the region was the lack of qualified men, or problems with attracting sufficiently qualified schoolmasters. This minute is worth quoting at length:

In regard the want of schools in great measure proceeds from the scarcity of young men fit to teach, therefore the Synod recommends to the several presbyteries not to give recommendations to young men for burses at the profession until they pass some time in the bounds, after their graduation, as chaplains or schoolmasters: as also that they correspond with the Synods of Argyll and Moray to see if they can spare any young men fit for teaching schools. (NRS, CH2/312/1, 26–7)

While this can be read as offering a bleak impression of education in the region, it should be noted that the synod was expressing specific expectations regarding what constituted a ‘sufficient’ schoolmaster. Indeed, the synod was proposing that presbyteries forego the granting of bursaries to university students entering the ministry until they had employed their skills, such as knowledge of the classical languages, for some time as schoolmasters. The problem, then, was not that there were no men qualified to be schoolmasters, but that most of those who were considered sufficiently qualified were being fast-tracked into the ministry to fill vacant pulpits in Gaelic-speaking parishes (Withrington 1962: 96–7).

​[25]​ It may be that the education acts, more suited to the conditions in the Lowlands, ‘had little impact on the massive educational problems of the Highlands’ as Durkacz maintains, but it is clear that local agents were making concerted attempts, through the Restoration to the post-Revolution period, to overcome these obstacles in their respective localities (1983: 46). Provision was no doubt exacerbated by the social catastrophe of King William’s Ill Years in the 1690s, during which, in Highland and Lowland alike, a schoolmaster’s salary seemed an unnecessary luxury (Boyd 1961; Withrington 1965; Beale 1981; Cullen 2010: 90–91, 132, 161–2). Nevertheless, many Highland parishes were just as aware of the advantages of education as their Lowland counterparts, striving at least to have legal parochial schools set-up. Indeed, after 1690, ministers of the established church in the Highlands demonstrated a keen awareness of the importance of schools in winning the hearts and minds of those disaffected to church and state.

​[26]​ In schools that were established, the curriculum was focused overwhelmingly on instruction in English and Latin, and not (as far as we know) any Gaelic. It appears that a method of instantaneous translation was used, at least in more isolated regions, to aid the learning of English, and develop the ability to translate ex tempore. In 1721, the ministers of Glenelg, Kilmuir Easter and Lairg wrote collectively to the SSPCK, seeking to clarify the organisation’s stance on the use of Gaelic in the classroom:

shewing that through a defect of the present method of teaching in some of the Societies Schools in their Highland bounds, these good ends proposed are much frustrate, for in places where nothing of the English tongue is understood, the Children are taught to read only in English which they understand not, and are denied the benefite of expounding and translateing the same by the help of their masters into their mother tongue as is the ordinar fashion and practice of the Gramar Schools. (NRS, GD95/1/2: 170. Italics mine.)

It was generally expected that English and Latin would be taught. Angus Morison, the Episcopalian minister of Contin whom we encountered earlier, indicates that internalised stigma towards Gaelic in education was already abroad in the Highlands before the SSPCK. In discussing a proposal for setting up Episcopalian schools, he insisted that these institutions should make allowance for

a Doctor for the Latine Gramer & English […] for without a Doctor for the other languages, the youth would not come in, for noe man in his right senses, would bestow on his son meerly for the Irish. ​[5]​ (NRS, CH12/12/817)

It is instructive that, throughout the SSPCK minutes, we find no explicit indication of popular resistance to schools neglecting to teach Gaelic, but many examples of communities and schoolmasters chafing against the Society’s exclusion of Latin from the curriculum. John Hunter in Braemar turned down the SSPCK’s offer of a job not only because he refused to sign the Confession of Faith, but also because he was prohibited from teaching Latin (NRS, GD124/15/1051/2). John McPherson, schoolmaster in Bracadale resigned his post in 1720 as many scholars ‘gone elsewhere to Learn Latine’ (NRS, GD95/2/3: 23–4). John McBean in Kilmalie was reprimanded on multiple occasions for teaching Latin, despite his insistence that attendance would drop if he did not (NRS, GD95/2/3: 32–3, 274–5). In 1727, the Presbytery of Long Island petitioned the SSPCK, requesting that the schoolmaster in South Uist be allowed to teach Latin ‘as the two popish schools do, that protestant children be not in danger of being perverted by popish schoolmasters’ (NRS, GD95/1/3: 5–6). Withrington observes that ‘most parishes sought, and expected to have, a graduate as a schoolmaster, or at least a young man who had been at a college and was suitably versed in languages’. Indeed, the absence of a classical school was considered discreditable in some Highland parishes (Withrington 1962: 96–7). Latin, after all, was a must for those hoping to enter university. It appears that by 1709 the concept of a school education had long been widely embraced and that, contrary to SSPCK rhetoric, many communities knew exactly what they wanted from a school and sought to have their voices heard.

SSPCK Language Policy in Context, 1709-1754

​[27]​ This oft-quoted passage from 1716 has been understood by many scholars to represent the Society’s definitive attitude towards the language:

Nothing can be more effectual for reducing these countries to order, and making them usefull to the Commonwealth than teaching them their duty to God, their King and Countrey and rooting out their Irish language, and this has been the case of the Society so far as they could, For all the Schollars are taught in English. (NRS, GD95/2/2: 95)

Once again, it is important to note that the Society’s rhetoric did not necessarily correspond with its policy, nor did it reflect circumstances in individual schools. Indeed, evidence suggests that the SSPCK grew more hard-line in its anti-Gaelic rhetoric as a result of the Jacobite risings between 1715 and 1746. Nathan Gray demonstrates that the document from which the above quote has been taken, a memorial to the Scottish commission of police, should not be considered a policy statement, but a proposal to the government in favour of state support for schooling in the Highlands (2011: 196–7). The Act for the more effectuall Securing the peace of the Highlands, which came in the wake of the 1715 Jacobite rising, ordered that a Royal Commission be appointed to ‘lay before his Majesty of the proper places for establishing schools, of the necessary salaries for the maintenance of them, that all needful provision may be made for that end’ (1 Geo I c. 54), and the SSPCK sought to exert its influence in this. The Jacobite risings were something of a double-edged sword for the Society. While contributions and the prospect of state-support might suffer from the Society’s perceived failure, the right turn of phrase and some shrewd spin could make all of the difference at a time when anti-Gaelic sentiment was at a peak. That the SSPCK archive contains two prior draft versions of this document suggests that members sought to refine their rhetoric for different audiences to increase the likelihood of garnering support, especially in its presentation of the Highlands. With regards to language, the earliest draft adopts a much gentler tone than the final version, stating that

One of the main aims in their Erection was to set up Charity Schools throughout the Highlands & Isles to the Extent that, in consequence of having Knowledge, particularly of the foundations of the Christian Religion, they might be the better & more useful subjects. Since, that teaches them duty to the King, Love to their Countrey, Justice to their neighbours, laudable industry in the work of their Generation, and occasionaly, the national language, without wch they, in great measure, remain useless to themselves and the world. (NRS, GD95/10/62; emphasis mine)

Regardless, there was no formal ban on teaching Gaelic books in schools until 1719, nor does this appear in Society publications until after 1720.

​[28]​ Gaelic was almost certainly used for oral communication in the classroom, while several SSPCK schoolmasters were teaching children to read the Gaelic Catechism and Psalms. In 1713, William MacKay, schoolmaster in Durness, informed the Society that, as his parishioners only had Gaelic, ‘he must examine, sing, and pray with them in that language, unless the Society give other orders’. The Society responded ‘that he may catechise his schollars and pray and sing with them in Irish […] But that he must teach them only to read Inglish books’ (NRS, GD95/1/1: 198–9). It should be reiterated that the unwillingness to sanction the use of Gaelic books in schools did not necessarily stem from short-sighted prejudice, but from contemporary uncertainties regarding the correct standard and actual utility of written Gaelic, and the limited number of approved Gaelic texts available. Nevertheless, the SSPCK itself was dispatching copies of the Synod of Argyll’s Gaelic Catechism for schools in Skye and St Kilda as late as 1718 (NRS, GD95/9/1: 1, 315). While English was promoted, Gaelic was being utilised.

​[29]​ There is even reason to believe that the founding members initially considered including Gaelic as part of instruction. The original call for eligible schoolmasters that was circulated among the universities, synods and presbyteries in 1711, specifically requested:

men of piety, prudence and gravity, who understand and can speak, read and write both in the English and Irish languages. (NRS, GD95/2/1: 197)

Considering this call for bilingual schoolmasters together with the failure to mention Gaelic in the founding documents, it is not unfathomable that the Society was at first open to using Gaelic literacy as a means of inculcating Presbyterian doctrine (Gray 2011: 200). It would quickly become clear, however, that very few qualified to be schoolmasters could read Gaelic with precision, while they were all capable of reading English. Of the Society’s earliest recruits, Kenneth Beaton, bursar of the Synod of Argyll, graduate of Glasgow University and the first SSPCK schoolmaster in Bracadale, was perhaps the most likely candidate to have Gaelic literacy (Inveraray Castle Archive, Bundle 571). ​[6]​ His father was John Beaton, minister of Bracadale, himself the son of Angus Beaton of Husabost, physician to the Isles in the classical Gaelic tradition (Fasti vii: 166). While John inherited his father’s classical manuscripts, according to Beaton genealogist Thomas Whyte, following his death none were ‘able to read it. Nor could he indeed, without the aid of one from Ireland’ (Bannerman 1998: 68–9; Whyte 1778: 6). In turn, it seems unlikely that Kenneth would be able to instruct scholars in Gaelic literacy. In 1737, despite the intent of several benefactors to donate Irish Bibles for the use of John MacLeod, the SSPCK’s missionary to the Highland colony at Georgia, he would later write to the SSPCK requesting that English Bibles be sent instead (NRS, GD95/2/5: 312). It should be understood that the SSPCK’s original intention was to focus first and foremost on teaching children to read the Bible and, at this point, this simply could not be done with Gaelic.

​[30]​ In 1723, the SSPCK further articulated its language policy. Gaelic was permitted, perhaps even encouraged, for translating English texts to enable children to arrive at an understanding of what they read. However, those with a grasp of English were to be banned from speaking Gaelic except when translating, and, ‘for the benefite of those who are learning the same’, ‘clandestine Censors’ were to be appointed ‘to delate Transgressors’. The Committee also agreed to consider proposals for an ‘English and Irish vocables’ for use in schools, a project that eventually bore fruit in 1741 with the publication of the first Gaelic dictionary, entitled A Galick-English Vocabulary (NRS, GD95/2/3: 188–90). In part, these modifications came in response to the 1721 Representation Anent Teaching Irish, a petition from several Highland ministers from Ross and Sutherland which flagged up the problem of rote learning in some schools. As indicated earlier, simultaneous translation was established practice among educated ministers and the route taken in several grammar schools. Furthermore, the publication of a Gaelic dictionary, it was hoped, would expedite the process of translating from Gaelic into English and vice versa. This policy was soon endorsed by Highland presbyteries, following a meeting between the SSPCK committee with the Highland ministers present at the 1723 General Assembly (NRS, GD95/2/3: 199–200). It should be noted that these proposals may have chafed against the sensibilities of some Highland landlords. Aberdeenshire heritors, Kenneth McKenzie of Dalmore and Lewis Farquharson of Auchendryne, wrote to the SSPCK in 1712, in favour of a non-Gaelic speaking schoolmaster, arguing that ‘it is more advantageous for this place that he want it [Gaelic] Since we are Obleidged to send our Children to the Low country to Learn the English’ (NRS, GD124/15/1056). Nevertheless, as a fundamentally religious organisation, the ultimate goal was that a minister would no longer be necessary for something as fundamental to the Protestant faith as accessing the scriptures.

​[31]​ The wider political context was also a significant catalyst for the SSPCK’s attempt to take a more concerted approach to Gaelic from 1723. It should also be noted that the measures pertaining to Gaelic were but one element in a broader overhaul of the Society’s management methods. Meetings were streamlined; inspection and surveillance in schools were stepped up, with local correspondence boards composed of Highland gentlemen appointed to carry out these duties; and, finally, lobbying activity in London was heightened (NRS, GD95/1/2: 230-3, 243-4, 250-1, 296-301). Following the abortive 1719 rebellion and the 1722 Atterbury Plot—a failed plan to kill King George on his journey to Hanover—Westminster was becoming more receptive to ideas for tackling the ‘Highland Problem’ and the SSPCK stood to gain financially (Stiùbhart 2003: 104–8). A fund of £20,000 had allegedly been earmarked from the Forfeited Estates to implement the 1716 Royal Commission’s plan to establish schools in the Highlands. It was estimated that the funds would support 151 additional schools, with schoolmasters receiving a generous salary of £20 Sterling (NRS, GD95/1/2: 236–7; The National Archives [TNA] SP54/12/229). It is conceivable that the membership believed, given access to this fund, it could make progress towards removing Gaelic. Regardless, this fund was not forthcoming. SSPCK publications would continue to bemoan that ‘no part of this money hath ever been received by the Society’ (SSPCK 1774: 9). As a result, the increase of schools proceeded slowly and salaries remained low, contributing to the SSPCK’s effective hijacking of the Royal Bounty from 1729 to augment schoolmasters salaries in return for their also serving as parochial catechists (Stiùbhart 2003: 125–9).

​[32]​ Due to the Society’s inability to enforce language policy on the ground, the treatment of Gaelic continued to be dictated by local conditions and the attitude of individual schoolmasters. In turn, the SSPCK introduced no further measures concerning Gaelic until 1751. Although space does not permit a fuller exploration of the moderating influence that local attitudes had on SSPCK language policy—indeed, this would constitute an article in its own right—a couple of case studies are illustrative. For instance, Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, the famed Jacobite poet, used his position as a catechist-schoolmaster in Ardnamurchan to promote Gaelic (and the knowledge of English) through his 1741 Galick-English Vocabulary: an unprecedented project which, regardless of the SSPCK’s intentions, undoubtedly galvanised the move towards Gaelic literacy (Black 2009: 50–3). In Perthshire by the 1730s, it became standard practice to pay SSPCK schoolmasters for ‘precenting in Irish’ during church services (Young 2016: 44). When we consider that many SSPCK schoolmasters also served as Royal Bounty catechists, many of whom used the Synod of Argyll’s catechism, it may even be that this facilitated an increase in Gaelic literacy, and ensured that the classically influenced written Gaelic preferred in Argyll became more hegemonic. In 1738, the SSPCK began quietly to disregard its own language policy: distributing copies of the ‘Confession of Faith in Irish’ among schools ‘For instructing of the Highland Children to translate the Irish into English’; a reversal of the initial insistence on translating English texts into Gaelic (NRS, GD95/2/5: 353). On the other hand, the presbyteries of Caithness and Aberdeenshire frequently requested schoolmasters with no Gaelic (NRS, GD95/1/2: 126; GD95/1/3: 51–2; GD95/2/6: 404; GD95/2/7: 101).

​[33]​ It is revealing that, in the wake of the 1745 Jacobite rising, the SSPCK’s London board advised the Edinburgh Committee to include ‘wearing out the Irish Language and spreading the English tongue’ in its forthcoming pamphlet ‘to recover its Credite in England’ (NRS, GD95/2/6: 320). This no doubt applied in Scotland as well. Apart from the Gaelic-English vocabulary project, the language issue is conspicuous by its absence in the minutes between 1725 and 1745. In 1751, it was enacted that children who had some proficiency in English were to be chastised for speaking Gaelic in and around the school (NRS, GD95/2/7: 30–1). This measure was reiterated in 1753, suggesting that it made little impact (117–8). Nevertheless, in 1748 the Society backed a Gaelic translation of Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted. Before the translation was carried out, the SSPCK did question its utility, pointing out that ‘those in the Highlands who can read the Irish, can also read and partly understand the English’, and suggesting that an English version would be just as useful. Nevertheless, in the same letter, it agreed to find a translator ‘if this well disposed Gentleman’, Irish philanthropist Dr John Damer, ‘Judge otherwise’ (NRS, GD95/2/6: 496–7). The SSPCK paid Alexander MacFarlane, minister of Arrochar, £50 for translating the text, and, after publication in 1750, it was distributed among SSPCK schools alongside the Gaelic Confession of Faith (641). In 1754 the organisation would embark on a campaign to translate the New Testament into Gaelic, later published in 1767 (NRS, GD95/2/7: 253–4). In this respect, these final efforts to double-down on Gaelic in schools can be considered a short-term, intense, but ultimately hollow endeavour, reflecting the climate of oppression in the wake of Culloden.


​[34]​ This article has attempted to shed some light on the problems with the established view of the SSPCK as an agent of ‘anglicisation’ above all else. A close reading of the SSPCK collection reveals the ambiguities and subtleties in the Society’s language policy. We cannot be certain, for instance, that the organisation had the elimination of Gaelic in sight from the very beginning. Indeed, the original recruitment drive sought to incorporate candidates with Gaelic literacy. Contemporary uncertainties concerning the utility of Gaelic literacy—not to mention the limited financial and human resources available—may have led the Society to prioritise English as a largely practical matter: something within the realm of possibility at a time when members were eager to get things up and running. Furthermore, the extent and nature of schooling in the Highlands prior to the advent of the SSPCK suggests the organisation was tapping into and building a pre-existing tradition by prioritising English literacy, rather than pursuing an unprecedented and traumatic programme of denaturalisation.

​[35]​ It has also been demonstrated that the Society’s rhetoric was often at odds with its own practice. Despite the Society’s strongly worded memorial from 1716, no steps were taken to ban Gaelic texts from the classroom until 1719. It was not until 1723 that an attempt was made to limit the amount of Gaelic spoken in schools. We must bear in mind, however, that this was no blanket ban. Instead it served as something of an addendum to the more productive measure of ensuring that children translate texts from English into Gaelic: the tried and tested method of instructions in many grammar schools. Nevertheless, the Society had no way of enforcing these policies, instead entrusting local agents who could either moderate or impose them. On occasion, the SSPCK would even disregard its own rules regarding Gaelic, for example quietly encouraging the use of the Gaelic Confession of Faith in schools. Indeed, it seems that when the Society’s rhetoric, and even its policies, were at their most flagrantly anti-Gaelic—such as in 1723 and 1751—behind the scenes it was, whether knowingly or unknowingly, acting as a conduit for those who wished to see Gaelic elevated in status.

​University of Glasgow​


​[1] The phrase ‘Highlands and Islands’ is adopted here for the sake of convenience and brevity. The SSPCK’s remit included the Highlands, the Western Isles, and Orkney and Shetland. As the reviewer has pointed out, however, examples of the phrase from before the beginning of the century seem to imply that ‘Highlands’ and ‘Islands’ were considered two separate entities. Indeed, the lumping together of Highlands and Islands into one region may itself result from the geographical discourse of the SSPCK.​[back to text]​

[2] Literacy in Classical Gaelic was common among the elite in this region during the sixteenth century. Hebridean elites such as Domhnall Gorm (d. 1616), Ruairidh Mòr of Dunvegan (d. 1626), for example, regularly signed their names in Gaelic using a Gaelic script, indicating that they had received an education in Gaelic. See MacCoinnich 2015: 320, 321, 335. ​[back to text]​

[3] My thanks to Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich for this reference from the Delvine Papers, NLS.​[back to text]​

[4] Note, however, that evidence of written Gaelic sermons has been found for MacKay country, aka Dùthaich MhicAoidh, from as early as 1700, illustrating that not all ministers relied solely on the English Bible for the delivery of sermons. Evangelical Protestantism had deeper roots here than in other parts of the Highlands and a lack of evidence for elsewhere suggests that this was exceptional. See Macdonald 1962 and MacKay 1996.​[back to text]​

[5] This is also an ironic joke about Angus’s brother, Roderick, who was sent to a bardic school to learn Classical Gaeli. Their father, John Morison of Bragar, later lamented that he had spent more money on Roderick’s education that the rest of his children combined. See Matheson 1970: xlii. My thanks to Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart for drawing my attention to this reference.​[back to text]​

[6] My thanks to Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich for this reference.​[back to text]​



National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

MS 1401, Mackenzie of Delvine Papers, fol. 16

National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh

CH12/12, Episcopal Chest

CH2/312/1, Synod of Ross Minutes (1707-1717)

CH2/557/3, Synod of Argyll Minutes (1687-1700)

CH2/602/1, Presbytery of Kincardine O’Neil Minutes (1700-1713)

CH2/840/11, Synod of Aberdeen Minutes (1697-1705)

GD95/1, SSPCK General Meeting Minutes (1709-1735)

GD95/2, SSPCK Directors’ Committee Minutes (1709-1759)

GD95/9/1, Register of SSPCK Schools (1710-1761)

GD95/10/62, SSPCK Papers transferred from New College (1716)

GD124, Mar and Kellie Papers

Blair Castle Archive (NRAS 234)

Box 45/9/124

The National Archives, Kew

SP54, State Papers Scotland Series II

Reference Works

Scott, H. (ed.). 1915-28. Fasti ecclesiae Scoticanae: the succession of ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation, 8 vols (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd).

Printed Primary Sources

SSPCK. 1714. An Account of the Rise, Constitution and Management of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (London: R. Tookey).

SSPCK. 1774. An Account of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge from its commencement in 1709 (Edinburgh: A. Murray and J. Cochrane)

Whyte, T. 1778. An Historical and Genealogical Account of the Bethunes of the Island of Sky (Edinburgh: Neill & Co)

Edited Primary Sources

MacTavish, D. C. (ed.). 1943-44. Minutes of the Synod of Argyll, 1639-1661, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)

Matheson, W. (ed). 1970. An Clarsair Dall: Orain Ruaidhri Mhic Mhuirich agus a Chuid Ciuil / The Blind Harper: The Songs of Roderick Morison and His Music (Edinburgh: R&R Clark Ltd).

Thomson, R. L (ed.). 1962. Adtimchiol an Chreidimh: The Gaelic version of John Calvin’s Catechismus Ecclesiae Genevensis: a facsimile reprint, including the prefixed poems and the Shorter Catechism of 1659, with notes and glossary, and an introduction (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd)

Books & Articles

Bannerman, J. W. M. 1983. ‘Literacy in the Highlands’, in The Renaissance and Reformation in Scotland, eds. I. B. Cowan and D. Shaw (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press): pp. 214-35.

Bannerman, John W. M. 1998. The Beatons: a Medical Kindred in the Classic Gaelic Tradition (Edinburgh: John Donald).

Baoill, C. Ò. 2010. ‘A History of Gaelic to 1800’, in M. Watson & M. Macleod eds, The Edinburgh Companion to the Gaelic Language (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press): pp. 1–21.

Beale, J. M. 1983. A History of the Burgh and Parochial Schools of Fife (Edinburgh: Scottish Council for Research in Education).

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Battle in the Burgh: Glasgow during the British Civil Wars, c.1638-1651

Battle in the Burgh: Glasgow during the British Civil Wars, c.1638-1651

Andrew Lind


​[1]​ Despite flourishing research on Scotland during the British Civil Wars (c.1638-1651), there remains much work to be done regarding the Scottish burghs. Most discussions of the burghs in this period focus on the remarkable control that the Covenanting regime was able to enforce over the kingdom’s urban centres, or the divisions which emerged amongst the Covenanting elites of the burghs, which fractured that control (DesBrisay, 2002; Macinnes, 1991; Stewart, 2006). It is widely believed that the pragmatically minded urban elite initially welcomed the reform that the Covenanters promised. In 1987, David Stevenson gave a cautious assessment of the burghs, highlighting the remarkable solidarity they showed following the leadership of Edinburgh in pledging support for the Covenanters, while postulating that this show of support must have been for economic as well as religious reasons. Alan MacDonald (2000 & 2007) has produced similar conclusions from examining the participation of the burghs in the Scottish Parliament but has pointed out that the only times when the burghs were truly of one mind was when their rights and privileges were under threat. Allan Macinnes (1991) and John Young (1996) have stressed the essential role of the burghs as facilitators for the ‘radical oligarchy’ that, they argue, was able to take control of the Committee of Estates from 1641 to 1650. Young (1997: 167-168) has gone as far as to argue that this resulted in the establishment of a ‘Scottish Commons’, by which the burghs and shire commissioners provided the radical backbone of the Covenanting movement.

​[2]​ These arguments have largely been based upon parliamentary records and the fragmented accounts of the Convention of Royal Burghs. Thus, these national sources have been used to reach national conclusions. However, these sources can also mask the complexity of the political situation within individual burghs. Laura Stewart’s study of Edinburgh (2006) and Gordon DesBrisay’s revision of Aberdeen (2002) form the only recent investigations into the politics and conflicts acted out within the burghs during the 1640s. Indeed, both studies found that there were active Covenanting and Royalist factions within these cities; a fact missed when examining national records. In both cases, underneath the outward projection of conformity lay social division and conflict. While it is regularly argued that the Covenanters enjoyed popular support (Brown, 1992: 112-14; Goodare, 2014: 85-7; Harris, 2014: 389-390), Scottish Royalism outwith the nobility is often marginalised, if not disregarded completely (Robertson, 2014: 22). This then asks an important question: to what extent has Royalism within the Scottish burghs been overlooked?

​[3]​ Emphasis on local studies within the historiography on England during the Civil Wars has radically transformed our perception of how populations reacted to the conflict, and how individuals aligned themselves with one side or the other (Eales, 2001; Everitt, 1973; Hughes, 1987; Hutton, 1982; Scott, 1992). In particular, Mark Stoyle’s work on the county of Devon (1998) has revolutionised our understanding of local responses to the outbreak of civil war. Stoyle found that there were regional hotspots for both Royalist and Parliamentarian allegiances, which confirmed the earlier research of David Underdown (1979; 1981) and Christopher Hill (1972). However, most other areas were deeply divided. Stoyle’s case study of Exeter epitomised this point (1998; 96-107). Stoyle concluded that ‘people from all ranks of society possessed very definite political views’ (ibid; 229). A similar picture has appeared in Ireland through the work of Micheál Ó Siochrú (2011) who has found that, while provincial cities exercised a policy of ‘strategic neutralism’ and pragmatism, there were powerful factions within their populations that sought the pursuit of ideological goals. Ó Siochrú has used Limerick to demonstrate this, where local aldermen backed by significant popular support opposed the official stance of the ruling council in order to engage with the Irish Confederates (ibid; 36). Similar studies on German towns and cities during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) have produced comparable findings (Finucane, 2017; Medick and Selwyn, 2001). These new approaches ask serious questions of the current interpretation of Scotland’s urban centres during the Civil Wars.

​[4]​ This article answers some of these questions by examining Glasgow’s burgh politics during the Civil Wars, and by following the emergence of a Royalist faction within the burgh’s council. Glasgow, like most of Scotland’s burghs, is rarely connected with Royalist activity following the subscription of the National Covenant. Older studies of the city (Mure, 1830; Wallace, 1882) have either hailed its commitment to the Covenant or explained its inhabitants’ Covenanting adherence as self-preserving and pragmatic. George Eyre-Todd’s history of the city recorded that Glasgow played a ‘decided and vigorous part’ within the Covenanting rebellion, and that even its contribution of supplies to the Royalist army in 1645 was a sign of the magistrates’ pragmatism in the face of a military threat, rather than an indicator of Royalist sympathy (1931: 255). In one of the most recent surveys of Glasgow’s civil war politics, Allan Macinnes argued that the city supported the Covenant ‘ideologically, financially and militarily’ between 1638-1641, and then ‘tended to back the radical mainstream’s political direction of the Covenanting movement’ (1990: 15-16). However, several studies have noted that political consensus within the burgh broke down after 1645. William Shepard’s doctoral thesis (1978) which examined Glasgow’s society and politics between 1648 and 1674, mentions that the burgh split into two factions following James Graham, Marquis of Montrose’s occupation of the city in 1645. These two factions then opposed one another during the Engagement (1647-1648), when moderate Covenanters and Royalists attempted to restore Charles I and seize power from the increasingly radical party led by Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll. While Shepard did not believe that Royalism within the city was at the root of the conflict, he found that the resulting infighting plagued Glasgow’s city politics for the following decade (1978: 32-44). Kirsteen MacKenzie has recently supported Shepard’s thesis in an article which examined the burgh’s council between 1650 and 1653. MacKenzie argued that burgh politics in Glasgow had become polarised by 1650 between an alliance of Covenanting and Royalist burgesses who supported Charles II and Remonstrators led by Patrick Gillespie who advocated support for Cromwellian forces (2016: 71-76). Perhaps what is most surprising about the recent scholarship on Glasgow is that, despite the common acceptance that the burgh became politically divided after 1645, there has not been any previous attempt to trace the origins of Royalist opposition within the burgh.

​[5]​ This article will argue that, far from being a stronghold of Covenanting support, Glasgow was deeply divided, by as early as 1638, and that a strong Royalist faction was active in the city, drawing on the support of individuals from all ranks of society. This case will be made by examining Glasgow’s internal politics during three key moments in the Civil Wars: the eve of war and the Glasgow Assembly (1638); the occupation of the city by the Marquis of Montrose (1645); and the Engagement (1647-1648). These conclusions will not only force us to re-evaluate the ideological temperament of Glasgow but also encourage us to reassess the reach and success of Scottish Royalism.

​[6]​ In order to reconstruct the narrative of Glasgow’s experience of the Civil Wars, a wide variety of printed and manuscript source materials were consulted, including burgh records, correspondences, memoirs and official records. While the focus of this article is on Glasgow’s burgh politics and the Royalist faction formed by members of the city’s burgess elite over the course of the 1640s, it is possible to glean invaluable details of widespread political participation, whether in public acts such as rioting or petitioning, or individual actions. It is hoped that this will both stimulate further studies and add to the growing body of research which is uncovering the complexities of loyalty and allegiance during the Civil Wars.

The Eve of War and the Glasgow Assembly (1638)

​[7]​ From the moment that Glasgow became an archdiocese in 1492, the burgh found itself under the controlling influence of the Archbishop of Glasgow. The archbishop’s power over the city survived the Reformation and had been renewed under James VI who granted Glasgow royal burgh status in 1611, with the added caveat that the archbishop would retain municipal control by reserving the right to nominate the provost and bailies (Goatman, 2017: 127). While the city had profited from the support of the Kirk and the crown, the constant influence of the archbishop produced significant tension between the city’s elite and the prelate. In particular, the archbishop’s control over the election of the burgh council denied Glasgow the freedom to elect its own magistrates, a privilege enjoyed by many other burghs. This produced what Allan Macinnes has described as ‘constitutional sparring’ between the burgh’s mercantile and craft elites and successive archbishops (1990: 11). In the years that preceded the Prayer Book Riots (1637), these sparring matches had escalated, with Glasgow’s magistrates launching a legal battle against Archbishop Patrick Lindsay. The dispute arose following a complaint from the burgh council that Lindsay had not supplied the payment of a minister’s stipend, which the archbishop argued was the responsibility of the council. Relations broke down in 1636 when Charles I intervened on the side of the archbishop. The king also took the opportunity to reiterate Lindsay’s authority and jurisdiction over the burgh’s elections (Goatman, 2017: 121, 181-182). The episode made it clear to the burgh magistrates that the crown would not support them against the archbishop, which undoubtedly played on the minds of Glasgow’s urban elite as the Prayer Book Riots unfolded the following year.

​[8]​ Over the summer of 1637, Charles I’s government set about introducing a new book of prayer and canons to Scotland. Composed by Charles and William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, and given a timid seal of approval by the Scottish bishops, the new liturgy imposed an Anglican service upon the Scottish Kirk. Opponents of Charles’s religious policies accused the new prayer book of backsliding into Catholic church practices and endangering the purity and liberty of the Kirk. On 23 July, at the prayer book’s inaugural reading at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, a riot broke out, sparking open resistance to the new liturgy across the kingdom. In Glasgow, the city was quiet in the immediate aftermath of the St Giles riot. However, in August 1637, when William Annand, a minister from Ayr, and John Lindsay, a minister from Carluke, attempted to preach from the new prayer book at the invitation of Archbishop Lindsay, they caused a ‘great dinne’ amongst female worshipers in Glasgow’s Cathedral (The Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie, 1637-1662, 1841: 20-21). In Annand’s case, between thirty and forty women reportedly cursed, scolded and threatened the minister which resulted in two ‘of the meanest’ women being arrested (ibid). Matters became worse for Annand a few days later when he and a group of ministers were attacked by ‘some hundrdths of inraged women’ brandishing ‘neaves, staves and peats’, from which the clergymen were lucky to escape without serious injury. When reflecting on the incident, the Covenanting minister Robert Baillie suspected that a number of the ‘best qualitie’ within the burgh must have been responsible for orchestrating the attacks (ibid). The entire incident bears striking similarities to the prayer book riot that occurred in Edinburgh. In both instances, women were prominent and it was believed that the disturbances were overseen by burgh elites (Macinnes, 1991: 159-160; Stewart, 2016: 56-58).

​[9]​ The burgh council was initially resistant to involve itself in the unfolding crisis, and like Edinburgh (Stewart, 2006: 227), Glasgow’s council records make no mention of the protests. However, on 20 September a supplication was brought before the Privy Council from the ‘burgh and citie of Glasgow’ which petitioned the king to take the matter of the prayer book before Parliament or the General Assembly in order to ‘delyver us from our fears’ (Leslie, 1830: 48). A month later the council was convinced by Robert Baillie – who originated from Glasgow but was the minister of Kilwinning in Ayr – to send a commissioner to Edinburgh in order to sign a general petition against the prayer book (Extracts 1573-1642, 1876: 390; Letters and Journals: 21). Unlike other burghs, Glasgow did not send its provost to sign the petition. Instead, the council sent Walter Stirling, a senior burgess and guild member (Complaint against the Book of Common Prayer, 1927: 314-383). Paul Goatman has suggested that this was due to Provost James Stewart’s reluctance to place himself in open opposition to the archbishop, his political patron (2017: 182).

​[10]​ As the prayer book opposition started to solidify into physical resistance, fracture lines fissured Glasgow. On 28 February 1638, the National Covenant was signed at Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh. Shortly afterwards, copies of the Covenant were dispatched to the four corners of the kingdom, with the Covenanters seeking the oaths and written assurances of nobles and commoners alike. The Covenanters’ acquirement of oaths and bonds of support escalated the political situation. Despite the Covenant’s promises of allegiance to the king, the physical action of swearing the Covenant gave the Covenanters a legitimacy which they used to establish the Tables – the executive body formed by the Covenanters to represent themselves – as the de facto ruling regime. In August, the Convention of Royal Burghs met at Stirling and commissioners were required to swear the Covenant. One of Glasgow’s representatives, Colin Campbell, suddenly resigned his commission shortly after arriving in Stirling. When word of this reached Glasgow’s council, it berated his recklessness, fining him for having ‘indangerit’ the burgh (Extracts 1573-1642, 1876: 390). While no explanation is provided in the council’s report of the incident, given Campbell’s later involvement in Glasgow’s Royalist faction, it is likely that this was a response to the Convention’s decision to make the signing of the National Covenant a prerequisite for commissioners’ entry (Spalding, 1841: 106). According to Gilbert Burnet, many of the burgh commissioners had been coerced into obedience by leading Covenanters (1852: 72-73). Thus, Campbell’s departure is likely to have resulted from his refusal to comply. However, many within the burgh did not share Campbell’s stance. In a letter from Archbishop Lindsay to James Hamilton, Marquis of Hamilton and the king’s Commissioner to Scotland, Lindsay complained of disorders within the Presbytery of Glasgow and urged Hamilton to find some solution to the ‘generall combustioune’ (National Records of Scotland [NRS], GD406/1/355).

​[11]​ As the situation across the kingdom deteriorated during the summer of 1638, calls for a Parliament or General Assembly had become deafening. Faced with this crisis, key intelligence gatherer Walter Balcanquhall, Dean of Rochester, advised Charles I that an assembly was inevitable and that the only thing the king could do was choose the field of battle (National Library of Scotland [NLS], Wodrow MSS, Vol. 66, No.37). Reluctantly, Charles agreed to a General Assembly and chose Glasgow as its host. The king’s choice of Glasgow as the venue was no accident, it reflected the belief of his chief advisors that Royalist resistance could be staged from the city. From Glasgow the crown could draw upon the clout which the Marquis of Hamilton could exert from his local estates (Macinnes, 1990: 10-11), as well as benefit from the influence of Archbishop Lindsay and the apparent sympathy of the burgh council and the burgh at large to king’s position.

​[12]​ Glasgow’s council had put off signing the National Covenant until 8 September. Moreover, less than two weeks later, on 22 September, the council welcomed the announcement of the General Assembly and the publication of the King’s Covenant. The King’s Covenant was an officially sanctioned alternative to the National Covenant that the king and his advisors hoped would undermine the Covenanters’ support base and threaten their legitimacy. When the proclamation announcing the King’s Covenant was read aloud at the Mercat Cross in Glasgow, Robert Baillie complained that ‘it was applauded to by the town, by too many with too much joy, without any number of protesting’ (Letters and Journals: 106). The council wrote to the Marquis of Hamilton, thanking him for his efforts and pledging its support to the king (NRS, GD406/1/442). The news was also welcomed by members of Glasgow’s clergy, some of whom wrote to Hamilton echoing the council’s praise (NRS, GD406/1/445). Baillie believed several members of Glasgow’s council and presbytery were working with Hamilton, including Provost Patrick Bell and Bailie William Neilson, (Letters and Journals: 106). Baillie feared that the King’s Covenant had the potential to be ‘the most dangerous divisive motions yet used’ as those who refused to sign it could be branded ‘traitors’ (ibid). These fears were not unfounded. The King’s Covenant had officially created a national Royalist faction in opposition to the Covenanters. This had the effect of polarising the political situation and demanding that individuals take sides.

​[13]​ Amongst the clergymen who had welcomed the King’s Covenant in September were John Strang, Principal of the University of Glasgow, and William Wilkie, Regent of the University of Glasgow and minister of Govan. Both men had been in active communication with Balcanquhall and Hamilton in efforts to galvanise support for the king’s party within the burgh. This was part of a larger campaign, co-ordinated by Hamilton and William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, to secure ‘moderate and discreet’ men within the burghs of Glasgow and Edinburgh to support the king’s prerogative at the upcoming assembly (NRS, GD406/1/596). In this regard, Wilkie and Strang had been hard at work. On 6 November, two weeks before the opening of the General Assembly, Wilkie gleefully reported to Balcanquhall that he had secured a number of signatures for the King’s Covenant, including seven from fellow ministers (Letters and Journals: 482-483). Meanwhile, Strang had galvanised support for the king within the university. After manoeuvring to boost the university’s representation in the assembly from one vote to four, Strang had ensured that these four representatives would be ‘non-covenanters’ (ibid: 133; Reid, 1817: 275). Thanks to the efforts of Strang, Wilkie and Patrick Bell, Robert Baillie stated that, on the eve of the Glasgow Assembly, the city was the greatest opponent to the Covenant in the west (Letters and Journals: 63).

​[14]​ Despite the designs of the king’s supporters in Glasgow, their plan to resist the Covenanters within the assembly began to unravel. The first blow came as the Aberdeen Doctors excused themselves from proceedings. The Doctors were a group of theologians predominantly from King’s and Marischal’s Colleges in Aberdeen who had led the king’s print propaganda war during the summer of 1638 (Macmillan, 1909). Hamilton had planned on using them as a theological battering-ram to test the foundations of the Covenanters’ religious justifications. However, fearing for their safety, the Doctors reneged on their promise of physical support, and instead offered only vocal encouragement (NRS, GD406/1/457; NRS, GD40/1/466; NRS, GD406/1/665). The king’s position deteriorated further when Principal Strang withdrew his twenty-eight-page objection against the Covenant just as Hamilton was about to read it aloud to the assembly (Letters and Journals: 135). Strang had penned the objection to highlight the dangers of signing the National Covenant and to encourage people to sign the King’s Covenant (NLS, Wodrow MSS, Vol. 31, No.2). According to Balcanquhall, upon discovering Strang’s plan to make his objections public at the assembly, John Campbell, Earl of Loudoun, and John Lindsay, Earl of Lindsay, both of whom were leading Covenanters, threatened Strang that ‘he must never looke to live quietly in Glasgow, nor anywhere else in Scotland’ if he made his complaint public (1639: 268). Strang withdrew his protest and the university was stripped of its votes. It was only the friendship which Strang shared with Patrick Bell and Robert Baillie that saved him and the university from further repercussions after Bell and Baillie fought off demands from within the assembly for action to be taken against the university (Letters and Journals: 172). At the same time, Patrick Bell’s attempt to distribute copies of the King’s Covenant to burgesses was interrupted after Loudon confronted the provost about this plan (Letters and Journals: 481-482). Matters were made worse by the fact that the Covenanters had been able to assert themselves amongst the lay representatives at the assembly. Local Covenanters, co-ordinated by the Covenanting leaders, had managed to influence the election of local commissioners with astounding success, far more successfully than their Royalist rivals. If this was not enough, the assembly was also attended by dozens of ‘assessors’, sympathetic laymen who travelled to the assembly in order to lend their physical, but non-voting, support to the Covenanting cause (Mason, 1989: 19-21).

​[15]​ However, the most grievous blow to Royalist prospects came from Glasgow’s burgh council, which instructed its representative at the assembly to vote against Hamilton’s attempt to disband the assembly and then voted in favour of the abolition of Episcopacy and deposition of the Scottish bishops (Extracts, 1573-1642: 394-395). The collapse of the king’s party during the assembly, the reality of what that meant, and the opportunity to oust the archbishop proved too tempting for Glasgow’s magistrates to pass up. The details of how this shift transpired are not clear within the surviving source materials. Indeed, there is no way to tell whether Hamilton’s men on the council such as Patrick Bell put up any resistance to this plan. However, this should not be mistaken as a watershed moment for popular allegiance within the city. Few attending the assembly could have predicted that war would erupt in a matter of months. Indeed, in Glasgow’s case, the aftermath of the assembly rejuvenated anti-Covenanter resistance.

​[16]​ In the months that followed the Glasgow Assembly, attitudes in Glasgow towards the Covenanters soured. Wilkie reported to Balcanquhall that visiting Covenanting ministers received cold receptions within the city, with the masses ‘not so Jesuited by ther Covenant’. This obduracy was noted by the Tables who, according to Wilkie, ‘upbraidet [Glasgow] as being Aberdein’s sister, and of a Laodicean temper’ (Letters and Journals: 487-490). Equating Glasgow to Aberdeen was an astonishing statement. Aberdeen had exemplified Royalist allegiance during 1638-1639 (DesBrisay, 2002; Reid, 1990: 10-30); by connecting the two it is clear that the Tables were concerned by the fact that, as the kingdom slid into civil war, the Covenanters could not rely on Scotland’s second largest city. When war finally broke out in March 1639 following Charles I’s decision to raise an army, the Covenanters were able to mobilise much of the lowlands for their cause. However, ‘the toun of Glasgow was, through the perversness of some few men, much doubted’ (Letters and Journals: 194). While Baillie fails to name these ‘few men’, presumably he was referring to those who had attempted to resist the Covenanters at the assembly, namely Strang, Wilkie and Bell. The Tables became so concerned that they dispatched Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll, from Perth to Glasgow in order to ‘keip them right’ (Extracts, 1573-1642: 398; Letters and Journals: 487-490). No details survive of how Argyll achieved this, but his visit was enough to keep the burgh in check.

​[17]​ Such evidence shows the dangers of interpreting political allegiance purely through official records, such as the voting patterns from the General Assembly. It is clear that Glasgow was divided and confused during the opening stages of the Covenanting rebellion. There was substantial support for the anti-prayer book rioters and petitioners, yet support for the Covenant was more subdued, with the King’s Covenant receiving a far warmer welcome in September 1638. Despite this, Glasgow’s council voted in favour of the abolition of Episcopacy. It has been suggested above that this was largely due to the growing resentment of the archbishop within the city coupled with the concerns which surrounded the introduction of the new prayer book. However, we should not mistake this for explicit support for the Covenant. Indeed, when the Covenanters asserted their influence in early 1639, we can see early signs that many within Glasgow were not comfortable with Covenanting rule. The next section will show that anti-Covenanter resistance continued to grow within Glasgow’s burgh council, with Glaswegian Royalists patiently awaiting an opportunity to throw off Covenanting rule.

Montrose’s Occupation and its Aftermath (1645-1646)

​[18]​ In the time between 1639 and the beginning of Montrose’s Royalist rising in 1644, Glasgow had largely conformed to Covenanting rule. Resistance was centred on a faction of burgesses, led by the merchants Colin Campbell and James Bell, the brother of former provost Patrick Bell. The Royalist leadership had been able to influence the council elections of 1641 that saw a sympathetic council elected, led by William Stewart as provost who had been nominated by the Marquis of Hamilton (Extracts, 1573-1642: 432-433). However, this was quickly countered by the Covenanting Parliament passing legislation which secured Glasgow’s right to hold free elections in the future, resulting in a delicate balance of power developing (Extracts, 1630-1662: 47-49). Local Covenanters had also increased their influence, none more so than George Porterfield whose favour amongst the Covenanting leadership had seen him become the de facto commander of Glasgow’s levies and a powerful force within burgh politics.

​[19]​ This uneasy balance was shattered following Montrose’s victory at Kilsyth on 15 August 1645. The day after Montrose’s decisive victory, Glasgow’s council, led by Provost James Bell, surrendered to the marquis and opened its gates to the Royalist commanders. George Wishart, Montrose’s biographer, recorded that upon hearing of the Royalist victory, ‘those who had hitherto concealed their favour to the king’s cause no longer feared to show themselves openly’, especially in Glasgow (1893: 127-128). As the Royalist officers entered the city they were greeted with ‘the joyous acclamations of the people’ (ibid). Glasgow’s council even made sure that the local clergy bowed as the Royalists paraded past them (NRS, PA7/23/2/42; Shepard, 1978: 37). As well as seeing that his men were fed and resupplied, Montrose instructed the council to oversee city-wide celebrations which included lighting bonfires to mark the king’s victories in England, and the publication of a thousand printed reports commemorating the Battle of Kilsyth (NRS, PA7/23/2/42). As Edinburgh had been quarantined due to the plague, the king instructed Montrose to hold a parliament in Glasgow, ordering a meeting for October in order to bring the kingdom back into ‘sound Order’ (NRS, PA7/23/2/34).

​[20]​ For Glasgow’s Royalists, their celebrations were short-lived. On 13 September, the Royalist army was completely routed by David Leslie’s Covenanting force at Philiphaugh. Devastated and disordered, Montrose led what remained of his army back into the north, leaving the lowlands open to the Covenanters. The defeat was compounded by the collapse of the Royalist movement in England following the king’s defeat at Naseby on 14 June, which extinguished any hope that English reinforcements might be used to turn the tide against the Covenanters (Royle, 2005; 353-363). Seventeen days after Philiphaugh, William Hamilton, Earl of Lanark, arrived in Glasgow at the head of a committee formed by the Estates to question the burgh’s council as to their conduct during the late occupation. Lanark, the brother of the Marquis of Hamilton, had been a key figure within the Royalist camp until falling into disfavour with Charles in 1643 and subsequently joining the Covenanters (Scally, 2004). The choice of Lanark as the leader of this committee was undoubtedly intentional, as the earl had been closely involved with developing Royalist networks within the city shortly before his fall from grace (Extracts, 1630-1662, 1881: 57-59; Letters and Journals: 480). His knowledge of who was sympathetic to the king within Glasgow was weaponised to purge the council. The entire council, with the solitary exception of George Porterfield, was removed from office for being ‘accessorie to the sending to and capitulating with James Grahame [Montrose]’ (Extracts, 1630-1662: 80-81). Colin Campbell – who was not even part of the council that year – was included within the group exiled from public office. Even the town clerk, Henry Gibson, was ejected from his office for having written the city’s letter of surrender (ibid: 82-87).

​[21]​ On 29 September, Provost James Bell was called to the city’s tolbooth to answer questions from Lanark’s parliamentary committee. The committee asked Bell why the city did not send any men to fight in the Covenanting army at Kilsyth, what advice the city’s clergy gave when Montrose advanced upon the city, why supplies and shelter were given to the Royalist army, and whether there were any within the burgh’s council who wilfully submitted to Montrose. These questions suggest that the committee had reason to believe that the burgh had, at best, dragged its feet, or worse, had been in active support of the Royalist army. Unsurprisingly, Bell denied any wrongdoing. The provost argued that the burgh had no men spare to send to Kilsyth, and to have done so would have left the burgh defenceless. Bell then accused the city’s clergy of offering no advice on the matter and defended the city’s resupply of the Royalist army as a necessity, claiming that anything which was not voluntarily given was liable to be taken anyway. When concluding his defence Bell shielded his fellow councillors, stating that none of them actively sought the city’s capitulation, but when the town’s inhabitants and clergy had met to discuss their options, none were willing to take up arms against Montrose’s army (NRS, PA7/23/2/42). Bell’s track record suggests that his steering of the burgh into Montrose’s arms was based upon more than pure pragmatism and survival instinct. However, it was a powerful defence.

​[22]​ Unconvinced by Bell’s explanations, the Estates created a committee from Clydeside – which included the Covenanting commander at Kilsyth, Lieutenant-General William Baillie – to oversee the election of a replacement council. Led by John Lindsay, Earl of Crawford-Lindsay, the committee supported the election of Porterfield and his allies. The ousted magistrates were barred from taking up any public offices, and all of Glasgow’s merchants and craftsmen were ordered to recognise the newly elected council as the only legal authority within the burgh (Extracts, 1630-1662: 83-86). The ousted council had been publicly tarred as Royalist dissidents, even if they held no genuine affection for the king’s cause. To ensure that the entire city knew who was in control, three Royalists soldiers captured at Philphaugh were publicly beheaded at the Mercat Cross (Government of Scotland under the Covenanters, 1637-1651, 1982: 7).

​[23]​ Burgh politics, which were already divided, would not recover from this episode until the Restoration. Factional lines were hardened and in the years that followed, both the Royalist Campbell-Bell party and the Covenanting Porterfield bloc exhibited a more strident commitment to their respective causes. This can be seen the following Michaelmas – 29 September, the traditional date for the council’s annual election – when the Estates banned new elections and instructed Porterfield’s council to remain in their positions for the coming term in order to prevent ‘all disorderlie courses, uther mistackis [mistakes] and prejudices’ (Extracts, 1630-1662: 97-98). Not only did this order impose the overtly Covenanting council upon the city for another year, it also overrode the burgh’s right to hold free elections, a fact that must have alienated even moderate councillors. In defiance of the Estates, James Bell summoned the magistrates to the tollbooth on the usual date of the election to select a new council. Porterfield’s council refused to attend. Those that did come re-elected Porterfield as provost, presumably in an attempt to curry favour with the Estates, and elected Colin Campbell, John Anderson, and William Neilson as bailies, all three of whom possessed links to the Royalist faction within the city (ibid: 100).

​[24]​ When news reached the Estates that Bell and his allies had held this unauthorised election, the result was immediately declared illegal and the Estates sent word to the Presbytery of Glasgow to punish those involved. In response, Bell and Campbell rallied around themselves an ‘unordourlie convocatioune of the multitude of the citie of Glasgow’. Under the pretence of seeking forgiveness for their actions during Montrose’s occupation, the crowd forced its way into a presbytery meeting and proceeded to ‘laden’ them with ‘heavy imputations and unjust aspersions’ (Extracts, 1630-1662: 102-107; Records of the Parliament of Scotland [RPS], 1646/11/44; The Records of the Commissions of the General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland, 1646-1647, 1892: 126-128). The presbytery, with the support of Porterfield’s council, denounced the rioters’ ‘malignant and tumultarie cariages’ (Records of the Commissions of the General Assemblies: 126). Parliament responded by branding the rioters as ‘spiritis long sopped in malignancie’ and authorised the arrest of the riot’s leaders (RPS, 1646/11/44). Eleven were identified as the ringleaders and brought to Edinburgh for incarceration within the city’s tolbooth. Four of those arrested, including James Bell and Colin Campbell, spent fifty days in the tolbooth, while lesser figures – like Walter Neilson – spent as little as six days in confinement (Extracts, 1630-1662: 110). During this imprisonment, the Estates received petitions from the ‘inhabitants of the toun of Glasgow’ urging them to release the magistrates. The Estates eventually agreed to release the ringleaders on the condition that they repent their wrongdoings, including those committed during Montrose’s occupation (RPS, 1646/11/55).

​[25]​ Following their release from the tolbooth, the Royalist magistrates were ostracised from burgh politics, with Porterfield solidifying his control over the burgh in a snap election in January 1647. Twice in the space of a year, James Bell, Colin Campbell and their allies had been publicly denounced as Royalists and hazards to the wellbeing of the burgh. Despite this, they had been able to gather significant support within the city, both when they stormed the presbytery and when they benefitted from the petitioning efforts of their supporters. Not only had many Glaswegians defied the orders of the Estates, they had done so on behalf of open Royalists. The presence of Montrose’s army in the area must have given Royalists like Bell a renewed confidence. Indeed, Charles’s call for a return to good order would presumably have been well received by Glasgow’s mercantile elite. However, as the opportunity passed with the Montrose’s defeat at Philiphaugh, Royalists were forced to look to themselves and secure their own safety and security. Nonetheless, the episode had laid Glasgow’s inner conflict bare for all to see, and the ramifications would be felt for years to come.

The Engagement (1647-1648)

​[26]​ The Covenanting council that had recovered control of the burgh in the 1647 elections was confronted with a dilemma after the Engagement was signed on 26 December 1647. The Engagement was a treaty between Charles I and a coalition of moderate Covenanters and Royalists who agreed to fight for the king in exchange for confirmation of the Solemn League and Covenant (1643) and the establishment of a Presbyterian church settlement in England for a trial period of three years. Crucially, the Engagement did not require Charles nor his supporters to subscribe the Solemn League and Covenant. Led by the Duke of Hamilton, the Engagers soon gained a powerful majority within the Scottish Parliament. Yet when a new levy was called to raise men for the Engager army, it was met with a cold shoulder from Glasgow’s staunchly Covenanting council.

​[27]​ Following the suppression of Glasgow’s Royalist faction, the burgh had been subdued for most of 1647. While Porterfield was not re-elected at the 1647 Michaelmas election, he appears to have reverted to organising the military contribution of the burgh to the Estates (Extracts, 1630-1662: 125). However, the Covenanting faction retained firm control over the council with the election of Robert Mack, John Graham and William Lightbodie, all of whom were close allies of Porterfield (ibid: 124-125). Upon receiving the Engagers’ call to arms, the council simply ignored the appeal to mobilise (ibid: 133-135). When the local Committee of War inquired why Glasgow had remained inactive, the council blamed the ‘generall unwillingness to engadge in this warr’ within the city (ibid: 134). Unwilling to entertain such dissent, the Engager Parliament ordered that those within the burgh who refused to give obedience to the Engagement would be arrested and held within Edinburgh’s tollbooth (RPS, 1648/3/182; 1648/3/195). In an ironic turn of events, Porterfield and his allies were all detained and sent to Edinburgh to occupy the same cells only recently vacated by their Royalist rivals. The Engager Parliament justified the arrests by citing written assurances sent to Hamilton from the eight wards of Glasgow, pledging their support for the Engagement and the associated military contributions desired from them (RPS, 1648/3/188). Unfortunately, the details of these assurances do not survive, nor are any of the subscribers’ names mentioned in the parliamentary records. Once the anti-Engagers had been removed from office, Parliament instructed the ousted council from 1645 to take up the vacated positions and organise a fresh election (Extracts, 1630-1662: 137-139). The newly elected council was led by Colin Campbell as provost and staffed exclusively by members of the Royalist faction (ibid: 141-142). The divisions within the city are best seen in the memoirs of Sir James Turner, the commander of the Engager garrison quartered on Glasgow. Turner noted that the populace was split, with the ‘honest and loyall men’ following ‘Coline Campbell, James Bell and Bayliffe James Hamilton’, while the ‘refactorie’ faction was spurred on daily by clergymen who preached ‘disobedience of all civil power’ (Turner, 1829: 53-54).

​[28]​ However, following the defeat of the Engager army at Preston on 17 August 1648 and the signing of the Treaty of Stirling on 27 September 1648, the Engagers’ dominance was crippled, causing yet another shift in Glasgow’s internal politics. Once again, the radical Covenanting Parliament, which had replaced the Engagers, had forced the Royalist council in Glasgow from office. Unsurprisingly, the council was supplanted by Porterfield and his allies who had firmly declared their allegiance to the radical Covenanting faction led by the Marquis of Argyll (Extracts, 1630-1662: 149-150). The retaliation was not limited to the city’s magistrates. Individuals who were deemed Engagers or Royalists were pursued by the new regime through the Act of Classes which was enacted by Parliament on 23 January 1649 (RPS, 1649/1/43). This included the cleric William Wilkie, the Royalist informer from 1638-1639, who was deposed for his refusal to condemn the Engagement (Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, Vol. III: 411; RPS, 1649/1/43).

​[29]​ Divisions remained rife within Glasgow for the remainder of the civil war period. Like most other burghs, the city levied support for Charles II and his Army of the Kingdom during 1650 and 1651 (Extracts, 1630-1662: 160-161, 180-181, 188-197, 202-203). Even after the city was occupied by Cromwellian forces, significant amounts of money continued to be transferred from the city into the king’s coffers (MacKenzie, 2016: 76). Nonetheless, this patriotic accommodation did not translate into a ceasefire between the two Glaswegian factions. Indeed, James Bell and Colin Campbell could still be found on the list of those barred from taking the sacrament in May 1649 due to their excommunication following the defeat of the Engagement (Shepard, 1978: 52). There are also several indicators that Royalists remained active within the city. In 1650, during the public reading of a proclamation damning the Marquis of Montrose as a rebel and traitor, a member of the audience ‘callit Johnne Bryson’ started a commotion by defending Montrose as ‘als honest a noble man as was in this kingdome’. Bryson was subsequently arrested and sent to Edinburgh’s tollbooth (Nicholl, 1836: 7-8). Further dissent was recorded by Covenanting ministers who complained in 1651 that the divisions within the Kirk had led to the ‘Malignant partie…gaining in strength within the town [Glasgow]’ (NLS, Wodrow MSS, Vol. 25, No.97). These actions serve as a testimony to the resilience and persistence of Glasgow’s Royalists, but also of their ultimate failure to enact permanent change.


​[30]​ From the evidence presented above, we can draw a number of conclusions as to the situation in Glasgow during the 1640s. Firstly, it is clear that Glasgow was far from a bastion of Covenanting support. The actions of the Bell-Campbell party clearly demonstrate that there was support for the king’s cause from all sectors of Glasgow’s urban society, as demonstrated by the burgh’s acceptance of the King’s Covenant in 1638, the Royalist celebrations of 1645, the storming of the presbytery in 1646 and the popularity of the Engagement within the city. The importance of local leaders, such as Bell, Campbell and Porterfield, is also evident. Using their influence and pull within the burgh’s politics, they were able to lend support to their respective causes. While there are signs of support for the king’s party in 1638, it seems that the opportunity to rid the city of the increasingly tyrannical Archbishop Lindsay was a major influence on the way the burgh voted within the Glasgow Assembly. The fact that Glasgow experienced its own prayer book riot in 1637 and that there was no discernible backlash following the abolishment of Episcopacy suggests that Royalist allegiance was not determined by a commitment to Charles I’s religious settlement. This challenges the arguments of Glenn Burgess who has stated that Scottish Royalists might as well be referred to as Episcopalians (2009: 204-205). The Royalist support from established merchant families is particularly interesting. For some merchants, the crown was undoubtedly associated with stability, trade and the protection of rights. Any hopes that Covenanting rule would be easier on merchants’ purse strings would have been swiftly dispelled between 1640 and 1643 (Macinnes, 1991: 205-206). Therefore, conservatism, the desire for stability and local pragmatism all played a role within Royalist allegiance. The fact that there was clear Royalist support outwith the ranks of the nobility and gentry means that we must re-evaluate our understanding of the movement. Likewise, the weak correlation between Episcopacy and Royalism heightens the importance of further localised studies in order to untangle the connecting strands of allegiance. As has been demonstrated above, the Royalist leadership was invested in fostering local support networks and there are undoubtedly more examples of this yet to be uncovered.

​[31]​ This case study may also help us reflect upon the issues of loyalty in other Scottish burghs and encourage us to rethink the complexities of allegiance. The collapse of the Royalist leadership network following its defeat in 1640 meant that many Royalists were forced either to conform to Covenanting rule or endure persecution. Glasgow demonstrates that, while Royalist sympathisers were willing to offer superficial compliance to the Covenanting regime, the burgh was far from unified under the Covenant. It is unlikely that Glasgow was alone in experiencing these kinds of events, and thus, the reality of life within the Scottish burghs appears to share much in common with the models developed by Stoyles and Ó Siochrú.

​[32]​ A key theme of this article has been the centre’s ability to influence the locality. In Glasgow’s case, the burgh elections were manipulated by both sides during the 1640s, often resulting in the election of a sponsored candidate as provost. As the provost was often the burgh’s representative at Parliament and other official forums, using the sources from these meetings can give a misleading picture of local allegiance. Indeed, it is apparent from Glasgow’s example that Covenanting uniformity could be, and was in some circumstances, coerced. The reality on the ground was that the city was bitterly divided. Glasgow experienced its own civil war, with local leaders opposing one another and using their influence to create disparate factions. The wider political developments tended to dictate which faction was in ascendance at any one time, but even after the fighting stopped the conflict continued to haunt Glasgow. The fact that Colin Campbell was chosen by the Restoration government in 1660 as its candidate for Glasgow’s provostship shows the longevity of the conflict within the city, and the commitment of those involved (Extracts, 1630-1662: 450-452).

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Staging Kingship in Scotland and England, 1532-1560

Staging Kingship in Scotland and England, 1532-1560

Eleanor Rycroft

[1] ‘Quhat is ane king?’ asks Divine Correctioun in David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis before supplying the answer ‘Nocht bot ane officiar’ (1613),[1] thereby articulating a commonplace of medieval Scottish literature on kingship that the monarch’s duties were owed as much to his people as to the God he deputised for. Herein lay the fundamental difference between Scottish and English versions of kingship. As early as 1320, Scottish ideals of sovereignty were enshrined through the Declaration of Arbroath which recognised the difficulties of centralised government in a nation-state with powerful magnates, asserting that the Scottish king ruled a people — not a land — through a combination of divine providence and common assent. The Declaration states that if the king fails to fulfil his obligations to his subjects he may be removed by them: ‘Yet if he should give up what he had begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King’.[2]

[2] Whereas the English political system became increasingly autocratic throughout the sixteenth century, Scotland retained its symbiotic and dialogic mode into the seventeenth century and James VI and I’s ascent to the English throne. However, Jenny Wormald suggests that this was rather by accident than design, a consequence of the fact that ‘between 1460 and 1625 some 60 years’ of Scottish rule ‘were years of minority’ (2007: 13). The death of James V, in particular, ‘removed the threat of growing autocracy’ (ibid.) when he was succeeded by his baby daughter, Mary, in 1542. It was against this unstable and changeful monarchical backdrop that in 1552, Sir David Lyndsay, childhood companion to James and Lyon King of Arms at his court, produced an extensively rewritten version of his earlier interlude performed before the King in 1540, Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis. This article will consider how the differences between the political worlds of Scotland and England are manifested in the theatrical works of each, comparing the models of sovereignty displayed in Lyndsay’s play with two English dramas from the mid-sixteenth century, John Heywood’s The Play of the Weather (1533) and Thomas Preston’s Cambises (1569-70, but possibly performed in 1560 at Cambridge University). It will also consider how the conditions of a 1554 performance of Ane Satyre before the newly-made regent of Scotland, Mary of Guise, Dowager Queen and mother of Mary Stewart, both correspond with and resist the ideas of kingship that Lyndsay forwards in his play. The Satyre’s foregrounding of a silent monarch gains new resonance during this performance, and it may have been that Mary looked to the play as a means of highlighting her own form of governance.

Scottish Models of Kingship

[3] In the fifteenth-century Scottish chronicle The Book of Pluscarden the author writes that ‘the king is only the state’s vicegerent in the name of the Lord his God, and unless he governs it well he is not worthy of the name of king’ (cited Mason 1987: 139). This formulation imagines that the tight bonds between the divine and the earthly are mediated by a king whose concern for the common weal is both a spiritual and political duty for ‘the more one leans to the public good, the nearer one is to God’ (ibid.). Unlike the framework of Divine Right in England, this is not so much a hierarchy as a composite logic of substitution which elides secular and spiritual concerns by figuring ‘God [as] the soul of the state’ (ibid.). In such a formula, the Scottish king is important only insofar as he is God’s representative, and thus only so long as he can be seen — and agreed — to be doing God’s work. This model of sovereignty differs significantly, Wormald asserts, from ‘the quasi-religious propaganda used by the English and the French kings’ (2007: 18).[3]

[4] Roger Mason explains that from the medieval period onwards, Scotland’s was a monarchy beset by internal and external conflicts that resulted in an ideology of ‘patriotic conservatism’ (1987: 146) in an attempt to retain order in the face of civil war and invasion. According to Mason there was no radicalisation of the Scottish polity until the Reformation, which came some thirty years after it did in England (1987: 149). Political differences between the two countries were brought to the fore after the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when James was roundly criticised for using Scottish methods in the English parliament and at court, as Wormald has incisively examined in her article ‘James VI and I: Two Kings or One?’. She argues that while there was less constitutional sophistication in Scotland than in England, this lack of legal underpinning did not necessarily lead to an ineffective Scottish government. To the contrary, in Scotland, legislative processes often moved more quickly than in England, unencumbered by procedural obstacles.[4]

[5] In fact the mode in which laws were passed and rapprochement reached between political parties in Scotland can seem fairly radical and not ‘patriotically conservative’ at all. The ethos of Scottish government was one of debate and argument rather than precedent and law, meaning that parliamentary processes were active, lively and reciprocal. Wormald states that such instances as the argument between James VI and Anthony Melville are frequently misinterpreted by historians as a sign of political backwardness and impropriety: ‘The point of that debate, in which Andrew Melville seized the King’s sleeve, calling him “God’s silly vassal”, is entirely lost if it is seen to exemplify the lack of respect with which Scotsmen supposedly treated their kings'(1983: 197). Robust criticism of power was a political expectation. The dominance of flyting as a literary form testifies that this was as much the case at court as in parliament. That Lyndsay himself engaged in such a literary roasting of James V is shown by his Answer… to the Kingis Flyting (c. 1535-6) in which he accuses the monarch of sexual incontinence:

Lyke ane boisteous Bull, ye rin and ryde
Royatouslie, lyke ane rude Rubeatour,
Ay fukkand lyke ane furious Fornicatour.    (Charteris 1568: K5v)

Notwithstanding the longstanding relationship between the King and his courtier it is difficult to imagine so blunt a form of counsel at the Henrician Court. Of course, as Sally Mapstone has seminally identified, the speculum principis tradition had particular purchase in Scotland during the fifteenth century,[5]largely because, as Elizabeth Ewan writes, ‘[Scotland’s] background of threats to independence, long minorities and absent kings’ meant that ‘debates about kingship took on particular relevance’ (2006: 32). This was especially true as the king’s jurisdiction expanded from the reign of James III onwards, in a way which challenged the separation of realm from king outlined in the Declaration of Arbroath.

[6] In parliament as at court, the directness evident in Melville’s challenge of James VI demonstrates that the interdependence of the various parts of the Scottish polity was paramount. Change in Scotland was achieved through a dialogue between powers as opposed to diktat. And the relativity of power in Scotland extended beyond the relationship between the king and parliament or king and nobility, with competition between monarchical and burgh authority also spatially inscribed in triumphal entries. In order to manage the challenge to their authority presented by municipal powers, Scottish monarchs might mount a courtly prequel to triumphal ceremonies, as in 1503 when a royal entertainment was staged outside of Edinburgh prior to Margaret Tudor’s entry. Giovanna Guidicini claims that while ‘courtly language was reserved for outside the city gate — the language would suddenly change inside the city walls, where both James and Margaret performed acts of humility and devotion to the relics and crosses brought forward by local religious congregations’ (2011: 46). She goes on to argue that control of the urban border at Edinburgh’s West Port during a number of triumphal entries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries evinces the tension between civic and royal authority as a particular feature of Scottish ceremonies.

[7] Scottish political systems thus contrast starkly with the hierarchical and, since Henry VIII, increasingly absolutist monarchy of England. While some of the addresses made to power in Scotland’s political and literary spheres may seem surprising to specialists of the Tudor court, they should be interpreted in the light of a Scottish political philosophy which did not view argument, dissension and negotiation as troubling. Such features are bound to inflect sixteenth-century Scottish drama when compared to English plays of the same period.

Kingship in Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, Cambises and The Play of the Weather

[8] The binding up of God, king and commons in the Scottish system of governance is made especially evident by Lyndsay in Part Two of Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis. No sooner has the King, Rex Humanitas, established a parliament to reform the various problems afflicting Scotland than his role becomes largely ceremonial as Divine Correctioun begins to organise and direct the political proceedings. Although Rex has initiated the parliamentary process, it is Divine Correctioun who asks the Estates why they have entered the space backwards for instance (2387-2390). Rex then explains that his purpose in calling the parliament is to identify the evils that blight Scottish society. He announces his intention that the beneficiaries of this process will be the Scottish people, claiming that he will root out those that do ‘the Common weil doun thring [throw down]’ (2402). However, his executive power to punish those accused of wrongdoing is immediately undermined by one of the three Estates, Spiritualitie:

Quhat thing is this, sir, that ye have devysit?
Schirs, ye have neid for till be weill advysit.
Be nocht haistie into your executioun,
And be nocht too extreime in your punitioun. (2406-2409)

There is a suggestive shift from ‘sir’ to ‘Schirs’ here. Presumably the other authority being asked to moderate their response is Divine Correctioun, who castigates Spiritualitie, ‘It dois appeir that ye ar culpabill, / That ar nocht to Correctioun applyabill’ (2414-2416). The use of the word at this point blurs the concept of the word ‘correction’ with the character who embodies it. Correctioun speaks for, and is, correction — in itself, a constituent of the king’s fundamental duty to administer justice within the realm. Indeed the entire opening of the parliament reveals the fact that power is distributed between Rex and Divine Correctioun. The authority of Rex over the Estates is imagined as contested by Spiritualitie’s appeal to both characters, while his royal duties are equally as attributed to Divine Correctioun as to himself. Such a reading concurs with Greg Walker’s findings that ‘At no point in the play is an individual sovereign authority unequivocally in command’ (1998:142) and theatricalises the division and interdependence of power in the Scottish polity.

[9] However, while the representation of Rex Humanitas correlates with the divided authority acceptable to Scottish ideals of governance, he further disturbs these ideals when he appears to reduce his role to a mere figurehead and fails to engage with the active parliamentary processes that Mason and Wormald assert are the hallmark of Scottish politics. His spoken contribution to the assembly does not reach beyond a brief stichomythic episode with John the Common-Weill, an allegorical figure representing the people of Scotland. During the exchange of single lines of dialogue from 2442-2450 Rex manages only to elicit superficial bits of information from John, but when he asks him what causes the backwardness of the Estates, the lengthy, reasoned and detailed response John gives is picked up by Divine Correctioun who then weaves the thread of his complaints into the debates that dominate the rest of the drama. The movement between literary forms is significant; the equal to-and-fro of stichomythia may dramatise the ideal political processes of Scotland but it is superseded by John’s effective silencing of the King. Rex’s verbal role in the parliament is over from this point. He sits by silently as the polity discuss social and ecclesiastical injustice and decide upon the laws that will redress inequalities and remodel the Commonwealth. The King only speaks up at the very end of the parliament, some thousand lines later, in order to welcome the Doctour (3347-8) and to ratify the reforms that have been made in his presence, although these already have the status of foregone conclusions: ‘As ye have said, but dout it salbe done’ (3743).

[10] The representation of power in Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis thus illustrates the intricate connection between the spiritual and the secular in the Scottish system — Divine Correctioun is after all divine — and the authority attributed to the common people. John the Common-Weill’s complaints are later augmented by the Pauper whose anecdotes of injustice influence the legal reforms that are introduced. But the play’s portrayal of a parliament in which the King is reduced to an emblematic role demonstrates an acute anxiety about sovereignty in sixteenth-century Scotland. This is perhaps not surprising given that the first half of the century had been dominated by infant monarchs, changing regents and magnate factionalism, with James V reigning from the age of seventeen months and Mary Queen of Scots ascending to the throne as a newborn. In order for the debate-driven Scottish system to thrive it was necessary to have a king to engage in argument but, instead, as Gude Counsall laments in Part One of the Satyre, ‘our guiders all want grace, / And die before their day’ (580-1). The greater separation of powers meant that it was possible for Scottish politics to operate without an active monarch, but such a situation was far from ideal, and the Satyre explores this sovereign absence in the character of the youthful and irresponsible Rex Humanitas.

[11] Unlike in the Tudor interlude, Walker writes that ‘The body politic in the play is…not coterminous with the body natural (or allegorical) of the prince’ (2007: 223) and that the personal reform of the sovereign cannot be directly mapped onto the nation. Change in Satyre must therefore be achieved ‘through parliamentary legislation and reform’ (ibid.). Walker suggests that the multiplication of kingly figures in Lyndsay’s parliament de-authorises the monarch’s powers and destabilises sovereignty in the Satyre, writing, ‘As in the classic New Historicist formulation, power is everywhere and nowhere in the state of the play’ (1998: 141). Sarah Carpenter develops this idea in an article which identifies Rex Humanitas and Divine Correctioun as duplicated figures of monarchy by arguing that ‘These twinned kings proceed to operate not directly but through a parliament, in consultation with the Three Estates, advised by Gude Counsall and receptive to the complaints of Common-Weill’ (2010: 106). For John McGavin, however, the doubling up of authority in both Rex Humanitas and Divine Correctioun does not necessarily undermine the representation of kingship but reflects instead the nexus of powers that contribute to the notion of sovereignty in Scotland: ‘Lyndsay dramatises a hierarchy of kingly authority, with God at the top, [and] insists that the force of correction is both divinely derived and native to the earthly king…Lyndsay is defining a reformed royal identity through separating out its component parts and locating them in the spiritual hierarchy from which they take their true unity’ (2007: 256-7).

[12] However the duplication and separation of powers in Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis are understood, they are in evident contrast to the representation of sovereignty emerging in English theatre during the same period. In John Heywood’s The Play of the Weather for instance, the dramatisation of Jupiter clearly serves as an analogue for Henry VIII and the unprecedented authority that the English monarch would claim on the eve of the Reformation. Unlike a number of Tudor interludes which display a central authority figure and keep the commons off-stage — such as Magnificence, Youth and King JohanThe Play of the Weather portrays an array of Tudor estates in its dramatis personae of a Gentleman, Gentlewoman, Merchant, Ranger, Wind Miller, Water Miller, Laundress and Boy.[6] However, the arguments that they make for their varying preferred weather conditions have no effect on Jupiter’s judgement about what the outcome will be. Despite listening to their suits, Jupiter decides that each person should have some of their ideal weather for at least some of the time, thus ‘shall ye have the weather even as it was’ (1240). This is a power play on the part of Jupiter, and by extension Henry, when seen in the wider context of the Reformation Parliament which had been debating the nature of royal authority since 1529. Whether or not Henry was present at the probable performance during winter 1532/3,[7] the implied commentary on royal power of depicting a ruler who appears to attend to the needs of his subjects, but ultimately dictates their fates, would have resonated strongly in the political context of the 1530s. The process staged in The Play of the Weather reinforces the sovereign’s claims to near-absolute power over the church and state, as well as the distance between the English ruler and his subjects, in direct contrast to the mutuality depicted in Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis.

[13] Such differing political systems are expressed in contemporary representations of sovereignty beyond literature. During a period of stability under James V in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, the Scottish Renaissance began to flourish, with a confident court culture providing suitable conditions for performance of an earlier version of the Satyre at Linlithgow Palace in 1540.[8] James also invested heavily in his palaces during this time, extensively remodelling Linlithgow and continuing the building works started by his father at Stirling Castle to make it a residence on a par with the great Northern European palaces. Henry VIII was also building and renovating his court at this time, developing York Place and Hampton Court, remodelling Whitehall and creating Nonsuch Palace. However politically he was in a much more vulnerable situation than James following the Pilgrimage of Grace and excommunication by the Pope. The break with Rome isolated England from the rest of Europe, and her subsequent autonomy initiated a period of rule that was seen both within and without England as increasingly absolutist and potentially tyrannous. Whilst Henry was seeking alliance with his neighbours in Scotland to shore up his uncertain position, Scotland was in a position of relative power with a dynastically legitimate king able to pick a wife from among the princesses of Europe. James’ choice of a French spouse over an English one sent a strong message to Henry about his intention to be the equal of Europe’s leaders rather than England’s subordinate.

[14] This intention is signalled not only in James’ alignment of himself with the crowned heads of Europe on the heraldic ceiling of St Machar’s Cathedral in Aberdeen designed by Gavin Dunbar, but also in the repetition of this alignment in the Stirling Heads that adorned his rebuilt Castle at Stirling. The Head that may represent Henry VIII in this series of roundels is tellingly accompanied by a fierce-looking lion on the subject’s shoulders, drawing a bestial correspondence with the furrowed brow of the King. The semiotics of Henry’s Head, if it does indeed depict him, therefore point towards a tyrannous construction of the English King. Neither was the notion that Henry was a tyrant an aspect of his post-Reformation identity that James V was afraid to exploit. The platform for ecclesiastical restructuring provided by the Linlithgow interlude of 1540 was seized upon by James as an opportunity to castigate the abuses of the Bishop of Glasgow and his clerics who were warned that they must ‘reform their factions/fashions and manners of living, saying that unless they so did, he would send six of the proudest of them unto his uncle of England’ (cited Walker, 2000: 539). Evidently James was happy to take advantage of the fearsome reputation of Henry VIII for his own ends when necessary. James would, however, be dead by 1542 and the security of Scotland once again in jeopardy as it found itself ruled by an infant monarch for the second time in thirty years.

[15] This divergent understanding of post-Reformation England as being ruled by tyrannical sovereigns, and sixteenth-century Scotland as not being ruled by sovereigns at all, manifests itself in the representation of monarchy in each country’s drama. While the latter anxiety is expressed in the near-silent King Humanitas in Part Two of the Satyre, a concern about despotism dominates the plays produced in England during the mid- sixteenth century, even beyond Henry’s death. The implicit plea that Heywood makes for moderation in The Play of the Weather is succeeded by mid-Tudor tragedies whose themes insistently concern justice, legitimacy, and the sapience of rulers; dramas produced well into Elizabeth’s reign such as Gorboduc (1561), Horestes (1567), and Cambises. From its outset, Cambises foregrounds the importance of that mitigator against tyranny – wise counsel – with the King telling his counsellor, Praxaspes, within the first fifty lines, ‘I will not swerve from those steps whereto you would me train’ and ‘Speak on my Counsel; what it be, you shall have favour mine’ (37, 47).[9] When Cambises goes abroad to fight against Egypt, Praxaspes advises that he should leave a proxy in charge ‘To sit and judge with equity’ (54) and the King appoints Sisamnes, for ‘A judge he is of prudent skill'(57).

[16] However, as soon as he is exalted to a position of power Sisamnes abuses his position, imagining how he might ‘abrogate the law as I shall think it good’ (117). Power is therefore concomitant with its corruption in the play, which is further demonstrated when Cambises also succumbs to a life of vice. According to Shame:

All piety and virtuous life he doth it clean refuse;
Lechery and drunkenness he doth it much frequent;
The tiger’s kind to imitate he hath given full consent.

In line with the potentially bestial depiction of Henry in the Stirling Heads, the feline metaphor foreshadows Cambises’ degradation to the animal state of tyrant during the course of the play. When Cambises returns to Persia he hears counsel, this time in the form of Commons’ Complaint against Sisamnes who has been ‘taking bribes and gifts, the poor he doth oppress, / Taking relief from infants young, widows and fatherless’ (389-90). Rightly, Cambises punishes the judge, however his method of retribution is disproportionate; not only must Sisamnes be executed, he must also be flayed. The King tells the executioner ‘Dispatch with sword this judge’s life; extinguish fear and cares. / So done, draw thou his cursed skin strait over both his ears’ (437-8). Praxaspes tries to assuage Cambises’ cruelty after the execution by saying, ‘Behold, O king, how he doth bleed’ (461), but Cambises follows through with his sentence:

In this wise he shall not be left.
Pull his skin over his ears to make his death more vile.
A wretch he was, a cruel thief, my commons to beguile!

Yet Cambises’ claim to be acting in retribution for the wrongs committed against his subjects is questionable as this is only the first of a series of cruelties in the play. He goes on to slaughter Praxaspes’ son when the counsellor dares advise against his habitual drunkenness: ‘a blissful babe, wherein thou dost delight; / Me to revenge of these thy words I will go wreak this spite’ (509-10). In an apogee of bloodthirstiness, he not only pierces the boy with an arrow, he also cuts out the child’s heart and presents it to the father. Cambises then goes on to murder his own brother, Smirdis, for his popularity, Smirdis tautologically recognising on the point of death that ‘the king is a tyrant tyrannous’ (724). Further, Cambises forces an unwilling lady into marriage with him only to kill his new wife when she weeps at his description of two puppies who collaborate to overpower a lion that he has set upon them; a joining of forces she says should have determined his relationship with Smirdis, although the King — described as of ‘tiger’s kind’ — is analogised with the lion according to the tropes of tyranny in the text.

[17] The spectatorship of the animal fight exemplifies the erotics of Cambises’ despotic court, with the King taking voyeuristic pleasure in the annihilation of his subjects. It is essential, he tells Sisamnes, that he ‘Receive thy death before mine eyes’ (420) and the importance of observing the flaying is emphasised when he repeats shortly afterwards, ‘I will see the office done, and that before mine eyes’ (439). Similarly, after he has penetrated the body of Praxaspes’ son with his arrow, he specifies that the body be maimed further by the removal of the heart and that Praxaspes witnesses the savagery, ‘Behold Praxaspes, thy son’s own heart!’ (563). These moments of gory sadism hold an erotic frisson for Cambises who ensures that his merciless murders are viewed both by himself and others. A crucial component of his tyranny is therefore the control that Cambises exerts over the mutilated bodies of his subjects, a voyeuristic thrill which also infects his agents when at their killing of Smirdis Cruelty tells Murder to ‘Behold, now his blood springs out on the ground!’ and Murder recognises that the dead body will please their sovereign, ‘Now he is dead, let us present him to the king’ (729-30).

[18] The desire accorded to Rex Humanitas is, however, the very opposite of the sadistic and gruesome voyeurism that characterises Cambises’ counsel-free court. Rex Humanitas’ court is one that is amenable to counsel, but one which lacks wisdom, revealed when the youthful and inexperienced King chooses a trio of Vices — Wantonness, Placebo, and Solace — as his advisors in Part One. It is therefore not the eradication of courtly counsel but the King’s patronage of the wrong kind that is the problem in Scotland, and this is specifically seen in relation to the king’s age and lack of maturity. With its history of minority rule it is no surprise that the popular speculum principis literature of Scotland often focussed specifically on the youth of the king, for instance The Buik of King Alexander the Conquerour which Nicola Royan contends Sir Gilbert Hay may have written after the minority of James III (1460-69). She claims that the largely positive, if anxious, construction of young rule in this particular ‘mirror for princes’ is at odds with most fifteenth- and sixteenth-century works on the subject, such as King Hart and The Thre Prestis of Peblis in which ‘the youthful royal protagonists go astray under the influence of their vibrant but irresponsible courts, and only after some difficulty are brought in hand’ (2006: 80). Janet Hadley-Williams argues that such works ‘were of most importance to Lyndsay; he offers princely counsel in semi-dramatic guise in six of his poems, and his panoramic play greatly adds to that pre-occupation and the dramatic devices used to convey it,’ furthermore that Lyndsay’s ‘satire is not “general” but directed to the Scottish king’s responsibility […] to govern self and realm’ (2006: 185, 191).

[19] In this sense Lyndsay’s rendering of speculum principis advice can be aligned with other Scottish literary examples, which Joanna Martin asserts are concerned with ‘the impact of sexual desire on the king’s governance of his realm and therefore establish a connection between the moral order of the self and good political rule’ (2008: 1). Rex’s youth is underscored in the play by the fact that he is sexually as well as politically inexperienced, as indicated when Wantonness says he ‘Kennis na mair of ane cunt / Nor dois the noveis of ane freir!’ (462-3). Solace attempts to lead Rex astray by describing a woman who will make ‘all your flesche up ryse’ (204), advice Rex initially rejects as ‘counsall odious’ (221). Sexual purity is therefore equated with good rule. However, on being introduced by his wayward retinue to Dame Sensualitie, Hameliness and Danger, a physiological change overtakes Rex: ‘My bodie trimblis, feit and hands, / And quhiles [sometimes] is hait as fyre’ (371-2). A stage direction clarifies that women are sirens who call monarchs away from their responsibilities: ‘Hear shall the ladies sing ane sang, the King shall lie down among the ladies’ (1033 s.d.). Rex takes to his bed with Sensualitie for ‘chalmer-glew,’ or chamber-glee, leaving the stability of the kingdom to disintegrate in his absence. The theatrical image has historic relevance given Lyndsay’s criticism of James V’s licentious behaviour in his Answer… to the Kingis Flyting.

[20] When Rex does re-emerge from bedchamber, his entry into sexuality is accompanied by poor political decisions such as the appointment of Dissait as his Secretary, Falset as his Treasurer, and Flatterie as his Confessor (884-7). Order is restored only through the arrival of Divine Correctioun and Veritie in conjunction with Gude Counsall. The latter acknowledges that his presence has been driven ‘out of Scotland lang time’ (578-9). Part One of the Satyre thus produces all of the national problems that require reform in Part Two. The absent or dead Scottish king is expressed through Rex’s somnolence which indicates the monarchy’s weakness and defectiveness, envisaged as an indolent sexuality that removes Rex from his duty towards his subjects, so fundamental to Scottish conceptions of sovereignty under the terms of the Treaty of Arbroath.

[21] While both Cambises and Rex Humanitas are effeminised through their actions then,[10] Rex’s disordered rule is of a different tenor. It is not with alcohol and violence but with sexual desire and ‘young counsall intoxicate’ that he is made ‘effeminate / And gydit by Dame Sensualitie’ (1123, 1121-2). His failure of sovereignty reaches its apotheosis when he displaces his kingly responsibilities onto his lover, referring Chastity’s punishment to Sensualitie with the words, ‘Evin as ye list to let her live or die; / I will refer that thing to your judgement’ (1438-9). Chastity’s contention that Sensualitie ‘now…rules all this land’ is proven by this ultimate act of weakness, characterised by its perversion of precepts of gender and rule as much as its privileging of vice over virtue (1467). His abrogation of responsibility is no less tyrannous in the Scottish text than is Cambises’ violent despotism in the English, for Divine Correctioun defines tyranny as the breaking of ‘justice for feare or affectioun’ (1618). It is difficult to imagine the royal reaction when this scene was performed before both a public audience and the newly-instituted Scottish regent, the French-born Mary of Guise, in Edinburgh on 12th August, 1554, particularly in light of the fact that Sensualitie states that she is newly-come from abroad (284-5).[11] Indeed, Lyndsay’s notion of good rule, while guided by feminine abstractions in the form of Veritie and Chastitie, is distinctly masculine in execution, epitomised by Divine Correctioun and Gude Counsall with his ‘lyart [grey]’ beard (965). It is these characters who will have the most influential voices in the parliament of Part Two. Power is thus seen as most secure when it is bestowed upon elderly males and Rex’s poor kingship is construed by Gude Counsall as a facet of youth, for ‘good Counsel hastily be not heard / With young princes’ (988-9), a maxim which also implicitly questions the authority of the repeated Scottish child-monarchs in the preceding decades.

[22] The anxieties about sovereignty revealed by Rex’s sleepy carnality are the very antithesis of those signalled by the unchecked, panoptic and dynamic power of Cambises.[12] Rex’s somnolence erases him from sites of political activity. When he withdraws to his bedchamber he enacts a political slumber from which he has to be woken by Divine Correctioun: ‘Get up, sir King, ye have sleepit enough / Into the arms of lady Sensual’ (1695-6). That Correctioun is mistaken for a king by Wantonness and called ‘Majesty Royal’ by Chastitie demonstrates how sexual desire detracts from political consciousness and displaces dynastic kingship in the play — as Divine Correctioun’s rehearsal of a list of flawed, luxurious rulers demonstrates (1705-1716). The reformation of King Humanitas is simultaneous with his acceptance of the wisdom of Divine Correctioun. After a brief struggle for power Rex assents to Correctioun’s authority, ‘I am content to your counsel t’incline / Ye beand of good conditioun’ (1777-8).

[23] However, the end of Part One also raises the question of whether Rex’s transformation has been successful, as instead of reassuming his sovereign powers of jurisdiction, he instead transfers them from Sensualitie to Divine Correctioun: ‘And here I give you full commissioun / To punish faults and give remissioun’ (1780-1). The problem of sovereign weakness is thus not necessarily resolved by the absorption of Divine Correctioun into the court at the end of Part One, and weakness in this text is repeatedly equated with tyranny. In this way, the Satyre offers a challenge to the Scottish poetry considered by Martin which concerns ‘ruling the self in order to rule others’ (2008: 6). In this text, personal reform is shown to only unevenly correspond with political change. It may be that the king’s youth and the fact that he has not achieved full bodily and sexual maturity play into the disconnection between the individual and the governing body in the play, serving further to critique the role of the monarch in the Scottish polity given the prevalence of minorities during the late medieval and early modern period.

[24] At the same time, in England, concerns over tyranny also reigned in mid-sixteenth century drama, although in this instance they took the form of a brutal monopoly on power. Even the seeming benevolence of Jupiter’s invitation of suitor-subjects to his court in The Play of the Weather is tempered by the threat inherent to his final judgement that he cannot please all of the people all of the time: ‘What is this negligence, / Us to attempt in such inconvenience?’ (1188-89).[13] As this survey of mid-sixteenth century drama shows therefore, tyranny appears in markedly different theatrical guises depending on the political context in which it manifests, whether as sleepy inattention in the wake of James’ death in Scotland, or the dictatorial madness which dominates dramatic representations in the aftermath of Henry’s repressive reign.

Satyre, Silence, and Mary of Guise

[25] A recent AHRC-funded practice-based research project on the Satyre led by Greg Walker — ‘Staging and Representing the Scottish Renaissance Court’ — staged the first full professional performances of the play since 1554 at Linlithgow Palace in June 2013,[14] and produced a number of discoveries concerning the language, context and dramaturgy of the play.[15] Of particular note, according to Walker, is a disconnection between Parts One and Two of the Satyre: ‘[I]t became increasingly clear during rehearsals and performances that it is the arrival of Pauper in the play that marks the definitive shift in its tone and focus’ bringing ‘the allegorical phase of the drama to a shuddering halt’ (2013: 12). This is not only a product of the conspicuously detailed reasons given by the Pauper for his descent into poverty during the ‘Interlude’ which separates the two halves of the Satyre — namely the deaths of his family and the subsequent ravishing of his modest livelihood through death duties exacted by the clergy and land-laird — it is signalled by his very entry into the drama, exquisitely crafted by Lyndsay to occur after Diligence has announced the interval. As Walker notes, the moment marks ‘a conspicuous grinding of the theatrical gears, a disjunction, [leaving] the audience briefly uncertain whether this is art of reality, design or the disruption of design’ (2013: 13). I would add to Walker’s observations that sleep functions as the fulcrum upon which this dramaturgical transformation hinges. While Rex’s sleep in Part One was wholly allegorical, loaded with ideas of sensual and earthly pleasure, kingly negligence and a Scotland in disarray — for instance when Dilgence warns the audience that the King ‘lang tyme hes bene sleipand./ Quhairthrow misreull hes rung thir monie yeiris’ (24-5) — the Pauper’s rest in ‘the feild‘ during the Interlude has no such attached significance (2043, s.d.). His sleep is a natural biological reaction to the wearying pilgrimage he has undertaken to seek justice, and so emblematises the shift from an allegorical to a more realist mode.

[26] The second part of the Satyre can thus be seen to engage with the condition of Scotland in a far more direct and radical way than the first — in a more Scottish way perhaps — not via allegory but through theatricalised versions of actual political activity that explore national parliamentary practices almost to the point of tedium. Lyndsay depicts political processes that would have been debarred the vast majority of the original audience by representing in full the assembly’s protracted and complex debates, as well as the reading of the fifteen Acts decided during the course of the parliament. Lyndsay also dramatises aspects of Scottish political behaviour of which the audience would have been more aware, such as the procession of the Estates (albeit backwards) prior to parliament, and the ‘fencing’ of the assembly — the exclusion of all those outside of the parliament through the roping-off of its members — a job that would have belonged to the writer himself as Lyon King of Arms.

[27] Beyond performing the political ceremonies inscribed in the text, ‘Staging and Representing the Scottish Renaissance Court’ also revealed in performance something that contributes significantly to the discussion of kingship, especially with respect to the immediate context of its performance in 1554. As previously discussed, Rex’s near-silence during the Parliament has been problematised and analysed by a number of critics because of its seeming incompatibility with the active parliamentary processes favoured in Scotland. However the actor playing Rex Humanitas in the 2013 productions managed to create a Scottish king in Part Two who, while speechless, was anything but passive. James Mackenzie’s version of Rex was rather engaged, conscientious, and theatrically present, occupied with careful and visible listening, whispered extra-textual conversations with his counsellors, while at the same time displaying obvious reactions to what was being discussed by, for instance, physically standing up in support of or in opposition to points of policy. The audience were left in no doubt that Rex had transformed between Parts One and Two into a monarch who cared for his country.

[28] Of course this was a performance choice on the part of Mackenzie and the director, Gregory Thompson, but it is also a salutary lesson to literary critics of the range of interpretative possibilities created through performance that considerably alter the meaning of what is etched on the page. Pascale Aebischer has demonstrated as much through her study of the silenced body of Lavinia in a variety of productions of Titus Andronicus, writing that ‘the elision of the rape in the play-text and the subsequent textual silence of the rape victim is made up for, in performance, by the actor’ (2004: 26). A purely readerly engagement, however, privileges ‘Titus’ grief in response to the textual gap left by his daughter’s violation’ whereas ‘in the theatre, the mutilated rape victim is insistently kept before the audience’s eyes for six scenes’ (ibid.). In the space left by Rex Humanitas’ silence in the Satyre Mackenzie’s engaged listening may well have echoed the way in which the actor performed the role in 1554, and such a portrayal of royal rule would have attained especial significance in front of Mary of Guise. Historians disagree as to whether Mary’s regency in Scotland amounted to de facto French rule, or whether she was afforded real agency and wielded considerably more power than the account of her as France’s puppet suggests.[16] However, as a Frenchwoman, and a regent, her powers would undeniably have been significantly reduced compared to a legitimate male monarch. Amy Blakeway further argues that her regency for an absentee adult monarch ‘if anything limited Guise’s power’ compared to other Scottish regents acting in the interests of minors (2015:23).[17] This is what makes Mackenzie’s performance of an active though quiet king so pertinent for Scottish politics at the time of her assumption of the regency.

[29] While it remains impossible to definitively disentangle the political relations underlying the 1554 performance, the various permutations each tell their own fascinating story. Mary of Guise had become Scotland’s regent on 12th April, 1554, four months before the performance, so it is possible that the show was mounted in her honour. Seating was certainly built for her according to an entry in the City of Edinburgh Old Accounts:

Item, payit for the making of the Quenis grace hous under the samyn, and the playaris hous, the jebbetis and skaffauld about the samyn, and burds on the playfeild, careing of thame fra the toun to the feild, and thairfra agane, the cutting and inlaik of greit and small tymmer, with the nallis and warkmanschip of cj wrychts twa dayis thairto, pynoris feis, cart hyre, and uther necessaris, as Sir William M’Dougall, maister of wark, tikket beiris xvj li. v s. iiij d.    (Mill 1927: 181)

Vastly more sums of money were spent by Edinburgh Council on the play, with Burgh records from 20th July paying McDougall, ‘the sowm of xlij li. xiij s. iiij d. makand in the hale the sowm of ane hundreth merkis and that to complete the play field now biggand in the Grenesid’ and further account entries from 18th August ‘to content and pay to the werkmen that completit the play feild the sowme of xxxiiij li,’ as well as another payment “to content and pay the xij menstralis that past afoir the convoy and the plaaris on Sonday last bypast xl s” (Marwick, 1871).[18] There are also payments made for the ‘dennar maid to the playars, iiij li. xviij s. ij d’ (Mill 1927: 181) as well as a compelling entry regarding one Walter Bynnyng in October which mention props that can be explicitly linked to characters from the Satyre:

the sowme of v li. for the making of the play graith and paynting of the handseyne and the playaris facis; providand alwys that the said Walter mak the play geir vnderwritten furthcumand to the town quhen thai haif ado thairwith, quhilkis he hes now ressauit, viz., viij play hattis, and kingis crowne, ane myter, ane fulis hude, ane septour, ane pair angell wyngis, twa angell hair, ane chaplet of tryvmphe.    (Mill 1927: 182)

[30] If civic authorities lie behind the performance as the accounts suggest, then the portrayal of a voiceless king may be interpreted as a challenge to Mary, a reminder to the old queen that the old problems of corruption and injustice remain and that Scotland requires the unequivocal authority invested in a monarch, rather than a substitute, in order to institute reform. In this scenario, a silent and passive version of Rex Humanitas might have stung the new regent to the quick. However, given that Mary of Guise was also in attendance at the earliest version of the play performed before James V at Linlithgow in 1540, and knew well its critical content and reforming bent, it seems improbable that she would have allowed it to be played without her approval. If Mary herself commissioned or endorsed the revival of the play, then the performance becomes a sophisticated ploy in a political game, re-invoking her association with her popular husband and allying herself with his kingly ability to accept good counsel through the form of drama, thereby modifying the problems produced by her gender and partial power. She also does something rather more radical than James V, or Henry VIII, by extending and exhibiting her ability to accept good counsel to a far wider audience than just the court through the public performance of the play before ‘ane exceding greit nowmer of pepill’ (Charteris 1568: 3). The political significance of this expanded audience is a factor noted by Ian Brown, who writes that in Scotland:

The potential of drama to address controversial public issues robustly had…been recognised and apparently accepted even in a Scotland engaged in pre-Reformation spiritual, intellectual and political turmoil. Lyndsay’s play’s production history – as an Interlude before the royal court in Linlithgow Palace in 1540 and publicly in a significantly developed and, it would seem, much longer and theatrically more complex form in the playfields of Cupar (1552) and Edinburgh (1554) — and themes — attacking religious and civic corruption — illustrate clearly that drama and theatre could be crucibles for cultural change and so they continued.   (2013: 88)

While it remains unclear who authorised this production, the known presence in the audience of Mary of Guise renders her biographers’ failure to consider the relationship between the 1554 production of the Satyre at the point of the assumption of the regency an oversight.[19] The boldness of the staging of this play at this moment, in addition to her longstanding relationship with both Lyndsay and his masterwork, suggest that Mary might well have been the fundamentally involved with its commission. If not, then the question of why the city of Edinburgh would fund such an enterprise is raised. It could be significant that the play was played ‘besyde Edinburgh’ according to Charteris (1568: 3) suggesting something of the tension between the city and the crown identified by Guidicini with respect to triumphal entries. It might have been that the ambivalence of the political message in this agile satire that concludes ‘Stultorum numerus infinitus,’ or ‘the number of fools is infinite’ (4502-4647), made it available to municipal as well as monarchical interests. There is also the possibility of reversing the reading of Mary of Guise’s acceptance of counsel in line with Greg Walker’s sense that ‘under a regency administration authority was neither unitary not undisputed’ and by representing a widened power base in Part Two, ‘the play offers the prospect of a powerful council.’ (1998: 152). Such a modelling of power dispersed among and between the polity could thus be seen to serve the interests of the Estates rather than the regent at this moment.

[31] Nevertheless in terms of its staging of sovereignty, the passivity which distinguishes the Scottish king from the English tyrant seems likely to have been reconditioned through performance before a female regent without direct access to a sovereign political voice. Speechlessness, which tends to only read one way on the page, is actually fraught with interpretative range for the performer. If portrayed by the 1554 player of Rex Humanitas in a similar way to James Mackenzie in 2013, Mary of Guise could demonstrate to her subjects that she, too, was listening during the production by adopting the strategy of counsel through drama and accepting the challenging vision of recent Scottish history that Lyndsay proffered. In opposition to Henry’s double in the form of the autocratic and removed Jupiter, Mary of Guise might therefore have aligned herself with the nodding, attentive, whispering Rex Humanitas on-stage, finding a mirror in the reformed and improved monarch in Part Two of the play. By doing so she would have demonstrated to the people and to the municipal authorities of Edinburgh that — no matter what the limitations of her status as a deputy, her nationality, or her gender — she was, at least, no tyrant.

University of Bristol


The findings in this essay are indebted to a number of collaborators, including Tom Betteridge, Gregory Thompson and Greg Walker, as well as the numerous actors, practitioners, producers, and designers working on ‘Staging and Representing the Scottish Renaissance Court’ and ‘Staging the Henrician Court.’ I am especially thankful for the input of Bristol colleagues, notably Lesel Dawson, Kate McClune and Sebastiaan Verweij who lent me books, ideas, and time as I developed the article. In addition to stimulating discussions with Ian Brown, I am grateful for the many times I have been able to rehearse and gain feedback on the article’s central ideas at conferences, and would particularly like to thank Jemima Matthews and Laurence Publicover for inviting me to deliver a version for their ‘Space, Memory, and Transformation’ seminar at the Shakespeare Association of America conference in 2016, as well as the kind invitation from Anna Groundwater and Jenny Wormald to speak at the Scottish Medievalists conference in 2014. The article is dedicated to Jenny, whose work has taught me so much.

[1] David Lyndsay, Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis. All subsequent references will be taken from Medieval Drama: An Anthology.[back to text]

[2]A public domain copy of ‘The Declaration of Arbroath’ can be accessed via The National Archives of Scotland website, http://www.nas.gov.uk/downloads/declarationarbroath.pdf [date accessed 12th September, 2017][back to text]

[3]For more on the role of constitutionalism as opposed to absolutism in Scotland, see James Henderson Burns. 1996. The True Law of Kingship: Concepts of Monarchy in Early Modern Scotland (Oxford: Clarendon Press), e.g. 7-10.[back to text]

[4]In Court, Kirk and Community, she cites the example the king’s ability to call a ‘convention’ rather than a full parliament, writing, ‘Conventions could meet quickly, not being subject to the 40 day-rule…For political crises, particularly during minorities, they were invaluable,’ 22.[back to text]

[5]See Sally Mapstone. 1986. ‘The Advice to Princes Tradition in Scottish Literature, 1450-1500’, unpublished DPhil Thesis (Oxford).[back to text]

[6]For a film of the play, along with educational and research resources produced during the AHRC-funded project, ‘Staging the Henrician Court’ (2008-2010), see www.stagingthehenriciancourt.brookes.ac.uk[back to text]

[7]The Revels Office accounts for 1528-34 are missing and, even then, information about Tudor interludes is frustratingly difficult to locate in the historic record. [back to text]

[8]Though the text of this play does not survive, the ‘nootes of the interluyde’ included by Sir William Eure in a letter to Thomas Cromwell dated 26th January, 1540, do, and the content bears striking similarities to the Satyre. See Walker, 2000: 539. [back to text]

[9]Thomas Preston, ‘Cambises’. All subsequent references will be taken from The Oxford Anthology of Tudor Drama.[back to text]

[10]See Rebecca W. Bushnell. 1990. Tragedies of Tyrants: Political thought and theatre in the English Renaissance (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press) 63-9.[back to text]

[11] Henry Charteris definitively connects the play and place of production with Mary’s attendance, albeit some time after the event, writing of ‘the play, playit besyde Edinburgh, in presence of the Quene Regent, and ane greit part of the Nobilitie, with ane exceding greit nowmer of pepill’ (1568: 3).[back to text]

[12] The differing political systems through which monarchy is conceptualised in both English and Scottish drama are brought to the fore in many ways by Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish’ play, Macbeth. On the surface, Malcolm seems to have much in common with Rex Humanitas, especially in Part One. Also a youth and a virgin, he plays at being a poor ruler in order to test Macduff’s loyalty and integrity, only to ultimately reveal his true sovereignty. However, Malcolm’s pretended vices are not the weakness, absence and indolence which emerge as a concern in the drama of Scotland; his lechery, intemperance and cruelty are rather the sins of the English tyrant according to mid-Tudor drama. What Macbeth perhaps exposes, then, is not the English perspective on the problems of Scottish monarchy, but rather the Tudor fear of absolutism and tyranny, refracted through a Scottish lens.[back to text]

[13] Jupiter’s volatile and changeable nature was brought to the fore at this moment of his performance by Colin Hurley during the ‘Staging the Henrician Court’ 2009 production. See http://stagingthehenriciancourt.brookes.ac.uk/performance/scene10.html [back to text]

[14] Please visit the project website at http://stagingthescottishcourt.brunel.ac.uk/ which contains blog posts, critical essays, a rehearsal blog, filmed interviews with actors, scholars and director, educational materials for schools, as well as a full film of the production. [back to text]

[15] See Peter Happé, ‘Sir David Lyndsay, A Satire of the Three Estates: Space, Language – Concepts’. Blog post available at http://stagingthescottishcourt.brunel.ac.uk/june-2013-productions/peter-happe-on-the-three-estates/index.html; Eleanor Rycroft. 2016. ‘Place and Space on the Late Medieval and Early Modern Stage: The Case of Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis’, Shakespeare Bulletin 35.2: 247-266; Greg Walker. 2016. ‘Blurred Lines?: Religion, Reform, and Reformation in Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Satire of the Thrie Estaitis’, in Staging Scripture, Biblical Drama, 1350-1600, Peter Happé and Wim Husken (Leiden: E.J. Brill) 42-67; 2014. ‘Folly in Lyndsay’s Ane Satire of the Thrie Estaitis revisited’. Theta XI: Théātre Tudor: 113-130; 2013. ‘More Thoughts about John the Common Weal and Pauper’, Open Access essay available at http://stagingthescottishcourt.brunel.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/More-Thoughts-about-John-the-Commonweal-and-Pauper.pdf; 2016. ‘Personification in Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Satire of the Thrie Estaitis’, in Personification: Embodying Meaning and Emotion, Bart Ramakers and Walter Melion, eds. (Leiden: E.J. Brill) 234-255; 2014. ‘The Popular Voice in Sir David Lyndsay’s Satire of the Thrie Estaitis,’ Studies in Scottish Literature 40.1: 39-54; 2013 ‘The Lost Interlude of 1540’, Open Access essay available at http://stagingthescottishcourt.brunel.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/letter-and-nootes.pdf [back to text]

[16] For the former argument see Elizabeth Bonner. 1999. The Politique of Henri II: de facto French rule in Scotland, 1550-1554 (Sydney: Sydney Society for Scottish History), and for the latter, see Pamela Ritchie. 2002. Mary of Guise in Scotland, 1548-1560: A Political Study (East Linton: Tuckwell). Bonner argues that when Scotland became a protectorate of Henri II in 1548, the French King installed Mary as regent as a cornerstone of his imperial ambitions in England. Henri’s control of the situation is revealed most clearly in a portfolio of legal documents sent to him in 1554 by the soon-to-be-deposed Governor, James Hamilton, which state that the Queen Dowager ‘sall obtene ane commission of liewtenandrie generale throucht all parts of this realme and dominiones thereof or subject therto. Maid by oure souerane [Mary Queen of Scots] with all consents, clausses and solempnities necesshe to the said noble prince [the Governor], to be usit under the charge and obedience of our said souerainis Regents of this realm quhatsoeuir for sik tyme and space as sall ples the maist cristine King of France’ (cited 1999: 99). Bonner also highlights the partnership between Mary and Henri Ceutin, Seigneur d’Oysel, Lieutenant-General of Scotland as appointed by Henri II in 1550, a figure often dismissed by historians as an ambassador but whom Bonner claims assiduously represented French interests in Scotland throughout the 1550s. By contrast, for Ritchie, Mary’s reign is characterised by decisive action despite the restrictions placed on her, and was tantamount to a ‘personal monarchy… that aimed to reassert royal power and advance the interests of the crown at the expense of local jurisdictions’, policies that ‘were very ambitious and extremely difficult to enforce – even for a Stewart king’ (2002: 6). [back to text]

[17] For instances where her sovereignty was undermined, see 2015: 24, 232 [back to text]

[18] Accessed online via British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=58529, [date accessed 12th September, 2017]. It should be noted that the records do not explicitly mention that the expenses were incurred for the Satyre but the dates and place of performance map directly onto the accounts found in both Charteris and the Bannatyne Manuscript. [back to text]

[19] Historians Amy Blakeway and Carol Edington both mention the event in passing: Blakeway, 2015: 134; Carol Edington, Court and Culture in Renaissance Scotland: Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount (Amherst, MA, 1994) 66. [back to text]


Aebischer, Pascale. 2004. Shakespeare’s Violated Bodies: Stage and Screen Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Blakeway, Amy. 2015. Regency in Sixteenth Century Scotland (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer)

Brown, Ian. 2013. Scottish Theatre: Diversity, Language, Continuity (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013)

Carpenter, Sarah. 2010. ‘Dramatising Ideology: Monarch, state and people in Respublica and Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis’, Theta IX: Théàtre Tudor: 95-112

Charteris, Henry. 1568. The warkis of the famous and vorthie knicht Schir Dauid Lyndesay (Edinburgh)

Ewan, Elizabeth. 2006. ‘Late Medieval Scotland’, in A Companion to Medieval Scottish Poetry, Priscilla Bawcutt and Janet Hadley-Williams, eds. (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer)

Guidicini, Giovanna. 2011. ‘Municipal Perspective, Royal Expectations, and the Use of Public Space: The Case of the West Port, Edinburgh, 1503-1633’. Architectural Heritage XXII: 37-52

Hadley-Williams, Janet. 2006. ‘David Lyndsay’, in A Companion to Medieval Scottish Poetry, Priscilla Bawcutt and Janet Hadley-Williams, eds. (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer)

Heywood, John. 2000. ‘The Play of the Weather,’ in Medieval Drama: An Anthology, Greg Walker, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell)

Lyndsay, David. 2000. Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, in Medieval Drama: An Anthology, Greg Walker, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell)

Martin, Joanna. 2008. Kingship and Love in Scottish Poetry, 1424-1540 (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate)

Marwick, J.D. ed. 1871. ‘Extracts from the Records: 1554’, in Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, 1528-1557, (Edinburgh) 186-207. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/edinburgh-burgh-records/1528-57/pp186-207 [accessed 5 September 2017].

Mason, Roger. 1987. ‘Kingship, Tyranny and the Right to Resist in Fifteenth Century Scotland’. The Scottish Historical Review 66.182: 125-151

McGavin, John J. 2007. ‘Working Towards a Reformed Identity in Lyndsay’s Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis’, in Interludes and Early Modern Society: Studies in gender, power and theatricality, Peter Happé and Wim Hüsken, eds. (Amsterdam: Rodopi) 239-261

Mill, Anna Jean. 1927. Mediaeval Plays in Scotland (Edinburgh: Blackwood)

Preston, Thomas. 2014. Cambises, in The Oxford Anthology of Tudor Drama, Greg Walker, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Royan, Nicola. 2006. ‘’Of Wisdome and of Guid Governance’: Sir Gilbert Hay and The Buik of King Alexander the Conquerour’, in A Companion to Medieval Scottish Poetry, Priscilla Bawcutt and Janet Hadley-Williams, eds. (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer)
Walker, Greg. 1998. The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

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Walker, Greg. 2007. ‘Flyting in the Face of Convention: Protest and innovation in Lyndsay’s Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis’, in Interludes and Early Modern Society: Studies in gender, power and theatricality, Peter Happé and Wim Hüsken, eds. (Amsterdam: Rodopi) 211-38

Wormald, Jenny.1981, repr. 2007. Kirk, and Community: Scotland 1470-1625, The New History of Scotland (Edinburgh University Press)

Wormald, Jenny. 1983. ‘James VI and I: Two Kings or One?’ History 68. 223: 187-209.

Thomas More’s Utopia and the Early Modern Travel Narrative

Thomas More’s Utopia and the Early Modern Travel Narrative

Jason Gleckman

[1] For all the many different ways in which Thomas More’s Utopia has been interpreted over the centuries, critics have generally agreed that the text constitutes a stellar example of Northern Renaissance humanism. Not only is Utopia accompanied by prefatory letters written by notable European humanists, it contains characters who espouse humanist values, references numerous classical authors (Lucian, Plato, Plutarch, Seneca, Cicero), and is presented in a form well known in classical times, the dialogue. Utopia is also concerned with such humanist themes as forming better people through education, the ‘transformation of social institutions’ (Rebhorn 1976: 140), and the replacement of a medieval cult of nobility by the humanist value of civic virtue, a ‘willingness to labor for the common good’ (Skinner 1987: 143).

[2] This essay focuses on another way in which Utopia demonstrates its humanist priorities, namely through an exploration of a topic dear to humanists: the nature of persuasive rhetoric. More approaches this exploration by considering a genre that, like ‘utopia’ itself, was radically new in the early sixteenth century — namely the ‘early modern’ travel narrative — and which was consequently developing new modes of rhetoric appropriate to its unprecedented aims. For unlike medieval travel narratives, which had been written to entertain a popular readership through the arousal of wonder, this early modern variant was written for a more selective audience and for different purposes. The audience was educated Europeans, especially the sovereigns who were financing exploratory voyages to the New World; the aims were to provide detailed and accurate reports regarding the resources — human, natural, and metallurgical — that could be profitably exploited there. In Utopia, however, More takes issue with the rhetorical devices characterizing this emergent, influential, and popular genre. Specifically, through the use of parody (a technique well-honed by humanists in such texts as The Letters of Obscure Men [1515] and The Praise of Folly [1511]), More critiques the travel narratives of his day by creating an exaggerated representation of one; the effect is to show both the superficial basis of truth claims in sixteenth-century travel narrative and, more subtly, their dangerous implications for both humanist rhetoric and humanist values at the time.

[3] It is easy to underestimate the importance of the early modern travel narrative to Utopia. As Nina Chordas argues in her study of early modern utopias, ‘More could have produced the same text without the benefit of New World narratives, drawing only on what was already available to him through European sources’ (Chordas 2001: 50). Moreover, in 1515–1516, when Utopia was written, the corpus of first-person travel narratives, particularly those relating to the New World, was quite small, and while news of the latest discoveries was avidly sought, it was not necessarily acquired by reading such first-hand accounts directly.[1] Furthermore, neither the Utopian landscape nor the behaviour of its citizens seems to resemble greatly the modes of New World living described in the earliest accounts.

[4] Yet, as Chordas also argues, and as H.W. Donner had outlined as early as 1945, there are sufficient similarities between Thomas More’s Utopia and the exploration narratives attributed to Amerigo Vespucci (which began circulating in Europe in 1504) to merit further consideration. These similar cultural practices include: warriors taking their wives with them into battle; ancestor worship; extraordinary bravery displayed by warriors when captured or killed; Epicureanism; euthanasia; common habitations; periodic, mass movement every seven or eight years to new dwellings; contempt for gold and jewels; no buying or selling; no private property; and no kings or lords (Donner 1945: 27). To this list Chordas adds both specific details — such as the robes of bird feathers worn by Utopian priests (Chordas 2001: 51) — as well as more general inspirations, such as the way in which the nakedness of New World peoples suggests an interchangeability or even conformity that also characterizes Utopian citizens (Chordas 2001: 53). Moreover, there are several specific references to Vespucci within Utopia: More’s work begins by noting that accounts of Vespucci’s voyages are ‘common reading everywhere’ and then provides an obscure detail from Vespucci’s ‘Four Voyages’ (Raphael Hythloday is one of the twenty-four men left behind in Vespucci’s New World fort) to reiterate the intertextuality of the two works (More 1995: 45; Vespucci 1907: 150).[2] In such ways More, right from the start of Utopia, directs his audience not only to the New World itself but also to the textual means that bring that New World to Europe and shape it for European consumption.[3] Given the humanist movement’s overwhelming attentiveness to issues of rhetoric at the time Utopia was written, it is not surprising that an interest in the style, and not merely the subject matter, of travel narrative would mark this early humanist excursion into the New World.

[5] When considering More’s Utopia from a rhetorical point of view, historiographer Joseph Levine reminds us that the work was composed at a time when fiction and history, the invented and the discovered, were first being distinguished (Levine 1997: 69). Levine, moreover, argues that Utopia itself, by drawing such aggressive attention to its own fictionality, represents a significant intervention in this cultural narrative. Early modern travel writings also participate in this development of separating ‘truth’ from ‘fiction,’ since the carefree intermingling of truth assertions and outrageous impossibilities that characterize medieval travel tales is no longer an acceptable rhetorical strategy in the early age of discovery. On the contrary, the works of early modern explorers must solicit a very high degree of belief since a great deal of manpower and funds are expended on the basis of the information they provide. To establish these necessary truth conditions within their narratives (particularly since these descriptions of a New World are both incredible and witnessed by only a very few people), early explorers must draw upon all the truth conventions available to them as well as to invent others. The result is the creation of a new genre, one that might bear superficial resemblance to the travel narratives that preceded it but is produced for very different reasons and for a different readership, qualities that may have made this genre an interesting subject for the imagination of Thomas More.

[6] Looking at the opening of the ‘Four Voyages’ of 1504, attributed to Amerigo Vespucci, a man who was generally known to have been to the New World, shows the speed with which the medieval travel narrative was replaced by its early modern variant. The work begins:

In the year of Our Lord 1497, on the 20th day of May, we set sail from the harbor of Cadiz in four ships. On our first run, with the wind blowing between the south and the southwest, we made the islands formerly called the Fortunate Islands, but now the Grand Canary, situated at the edge of the inhabited west and within the third climate. At this place, the North Pole rises 27 2/3 degrees above the horizon, the islands themselves being 280 leagues from the city of Lisbon, in which this present pamphlet was written. (Vespucci 1907: 89)

On the one hand, all the basic devices on display here — numerous plausible details, precise measurements of distance and time, a clear ‘transmission’ history showing the route of the text as it passes from lived experience to the production of a written report, a plain and forthright authorial voice insisting vehemently on its truthfulness — can be found in medieval travel texts such as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Yet Vespucci’s ‘Four Voyages’ is not a medieval travel narrative. Instead (and like many of the travel narratives that were to follow it over the course of the sixteenth century) it is a document written to persuade powerful people in positions of authority to invest their resources into New World expeditions, and to do so quickly.[4] In terms of its rhetoric, Vespucci’s ‘Four Voyages’ is equally revolutionary, setting the tone for later sixteenth-century travel narratives that similarly focus on empirically observed and carefully measured data — particularly the subgenre termed the ‘relación’ which involved providing useful information about the New World for the Spanish monarchies, using an impersonal language of fact and detail.[5]

[7] The generic transformation that occurs in moving from the medieval to the early modern travel narrative produces an interesting new narrative type as well, a figure who paradoxically combines extreme arrogance with extreme modesty. This narrator, as exemplified by early modern travel writers such as Columbus, Vespucci, Cortez, Oviedo, and Las Casas, is both a learned explorer and a capable potential administrator of the lands he has discovered and hopes to profit from. Yet to enhance the veracity of his words (and in line with medieval conventions of travel narrative) this narrator is also a supremely simple, plain and truthful man; he has witnessed what he writes about ‘with my own eyes,’ and the senses can no more lie than the travel narrator himself.[6] In such a manner, these early explorers base their authorial value not only on the privileged nature of the information they possess, but also on a rhetoric that promises this information will be transmitted accurately. From the point of view of these early explorers, those who have not actually been to the New World cannot reproduce their achievements; these fake travelers have no secrets to provide, and they are also accused of being professional rhetoricians, their flowery style paradoxically testifying to the falseness of their claims.

[8] Such a philosophy of travel narrative rhetoric, as deliberately and supremely ignorant, can be seen repeatedly in the sixteenth century. Bernal Díaz, writing in 1568, almost fifty years after the events he is recounting, insists he will speak ‘quite plainly … without twisting the facts in any way’ (Diaz 1963: 14). In Germany, Joh. Dryander prefaces Hans Stade(n)’s 1557 account of Brazilian captivity as follows:

I now noways doubt that this Hans Stade writes … not from the statements of other men, but thoroughly and correctly from his own experience without falsehood …
And so he tells his tale in a simple manner, and not with flowery style, or fine words and arguments, this gives me great belief that it is authentic and veritable; nor could he derive any benefit even if he preferred lying to telling the truth. (Stade 1874: 6)

In 1580, Montaigne summarizes this point of view in his famous essay on cannibals:

clever people … cannot help altering history a little. They never show you things as they are, but bend and disguise them according to the way they have seen them; and to give credence to their judgment and attract you to it, they are prone to add something to their matter, to stretch it out and amplify it. We need a man either very honest (fidelle), or so simple that he has not the stuff to build up false inventions and give them plausibility; and wedded to no theory (Montaigne 1943: 152).

[9] Such approaches are visible even in the style of well-trained humanist rhetoricians. Bartolomé de las Casas and his nemesis Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo both claim, in their respective histories of the Indies, that the significance of their writing depends less on their humanist credentials than on the veracity of their words; moreover, such veracity is most appropriately rendered in a simple prose style. Las Casas claims that his text’s ‘poverty of vocabulary, humanity of the style, and lack of eloquence’ are among its most valuable assets (qtd. in Pagden 1993: 78). Oviedo similarly asserts that will not use ‘rhetoric to enhance the truth’ and that he ‘speaks in plain and simple language of the wealth of the Indies’; he goes on to note that even ‘the most flowery of historians, even the incomparable Tullius Cicero could not find words to express the everyday reality I have touched and seen with my own eyes’ (Carrillo 2000: 41). When it comes to travel narrative, in other words, the simple prose of the honest man is preferable to the eloquence of the humanist.

[10] Yet despite the pervasiveness of this ‘simple’ model of exploratory narration, other possibilities do exist in the sixteenth century, Thomas Harriot, for example, does not endorse Montaigne’s prescription for severing travel narrative from learned humanist rhetoric. Mary C. Fuller discusses Harriot’s complaints in 1588 that some reports from Virginia are based on empirical evidence but are nonetheless unreliable: ‘[t]he cause of their ignorance was, in that they were…neuer out of the Iland where wee were seated, or not farre, or at the leastwise in few places els’ (Fuller 1995: 52). Humphrey Gilbert, writing in 1566, is even more confrontational:

the diversity between brute beasts and men, or between the wise and the simple, is that the one judgeth by sense only, and gathereth no surety of any thing that he hath not seen, felt, heard, tasted, or smelled: And the other not so only, but also findeth the certaintie of things by reason, before they happen to be tried (Fuller 1995: 21).

As Fuller explains, Gilbert encourages more latitude for imagination within travel narrative not only to solicit funds for an unproven project lacking empirical verification (his hope to discover a northwest passage), but also to re-make the genre itself along lines more compatible with Renaissance humanism, a humanism that similarly seeks, in Fuller’s words, ‘to imagine the shape of a world not yet known’ (Fuller 1995: 21). For Harriot and Gilbert, in other words, narratives of discovery, exploration, and eventual colonization are not to be approached merely as modes of literal transcriptions of exotic locations. As Gilbert puts it, perhaps overdramatically, such a rhetoric is appropriate only to ‘brute beasts’ who focus merely on acquiring sense impressions and local knowledge; ‘men’ in contrast have more far-ranging and visionary approaches to mastering the ever-expanding world. And certainly the narratives of exploration and discovery such men produce will be superior to the cruder travel narratives of their opponents.

[11] Looking back from the end of the sixteenth century to its beginning, we can detect, in Thomas More’s Utopia, a similar tension between humanist and travel narrative modes of rhetoric. The latter approach, one More detected in the writings attributed to Vespucci and Columbus, stresses such things as the equation of truth with the empirical evidence of the senses, the consequent rejection of a Ciceronian rhetorical style, and the presentation of the ideal author as a supremely simple figure. Yet this is not an approach endorsed by Utopia, and the text goes to considerable effort to make clear what is at stake in the gap between these two approaches, both in stylistic and ideological terms.

[12] Book One of Utopia opens by mocking the content of the popular travel narratives of More’s day. In questioning Raphael Hythloday about his journeys, More ‘made no inquiries…about monsters, for nothing is less new or strange than they are’ (More 1995: 49). In one sense, More is critiquing a genre humanists mocked elsewhere: medieval romances, largely coextensive with medieval travel narratives, that shamelessly resituated the less plausible aspects of famous classical adventure set-pieces — ‘Scyllas, ravenous Celaenos, man-eating Laestrygonians’ — into a supposedly real-world framework (More 1995: 49).[7] In such a context, More might be expressing a hope that the new genre of travel narrative will be an improvement on the old, de-emphasizing romance and adventure in favour of political and moral philosophy, focusing on such things as ‘ill-considered usages in these new-found nations’ and ‘other customs from which our own cities, nations, races and kingdoms might take lessons in order to correct their errors’ (More 1995: 48). Yet unfortunately these ‘new’ travel narratives — specifically those of Vespucci — contain plenty of ‘monsters’; both ‘The Four Voyages’ and the ‘Mundus Novus’ include implausible references to cannibals and giants that echo accounts in Homer, Virgil, and Mandeville. More even coins the word ‘populivoros’ to describe these cannibals; translated by the Utopia editors as ‘people-eating,’ ‘on the analogy of “carnivorous”’, the word may also be a pun, ‘populivoros’ meaning ‘popularly devoured’ and referring to a reading public who voraciously absorbs only the most sensationalistic material from the New World (More 1995: 48-49).[8]

[13] To make fun of such readers and texts and the attitudes they encourage, More resorts first to parody. This is a mode of humour early sixteenth-century humanists felt comfortable using in texts contemporaneous with Utopia such as the 1515 epistolary parody collection, The Letters of Obscure Men (which More praised to his friends), and of course, in 1511, The Praise of Folly — Erasmus’s example of both a paradoxical encomium and a parodic sermon, dedicated to Thomas More. It is not difficult to think of Utopia as emerging from, among other things, More’s effort to out-do even his famous friend Erasmus in the genre of parody, and a parody of the techniques of travel narrative may have occurred to him as he perused his Vespucci letters.

[14] In terms of the intersection of parody and travel narrative, an even more specific inspiration for Utopia than The Praise of Folly can be found in Lucian’s ‘A True Story’, written in Greek in the second century. Lucian was very popular among the early humanists, and More and Erasmus published their translations of him in 1506.[9] ‘A True Story’ begins by identifying itself generically as a parody of the ‘fabulous tall stories’ of yore, and the text’s parody commences with what could be taken as a passage from Vespucci:

For a day and a night we sailed before a wind that was favourable but not strong enough to carry us out of sight of land. At dawn of the following day, however, the wind made up, the sea began to run, and the sky grew dark. There wasn’t even time to take in sail … For the next seventy-nine days we were driven along by a furious storm. Suddenly, on the eightieth, the sun broke through and we saw, fairly near, a hilly island covered with forest. (Lucian 1962: 15)

As the text continues, additional elements of conventional travel narratives are imitated and mocked, particularly as they relate to the construction of ‘truth’. Lucian’s travelogue contains such devices as adamant assertions of the teller’s truthfulness, a repeated concern about maintaining his reputation as a trustworthy witness, the continual inclusion of specific numerical details, and the citation of material evidence, inevitably lost, that would confirm the tale’s truth. In Utopia, More copies many of these parodic techniques and moreover utilizes them to the same end: critiquing the alluring truth constructions of travel narrative.

[15] One essential element of truth construction in travel narrative that is highlighted by Utopia is the phenomenon of witnessing. This is a medieval travel narrative trope (‘you may not believe me but I saw it with my own eyes’) and also a fundamental component of medieval and early modern approaches to the law; reliable witnesses were crucial to legal proceedings (Shapiro 2000: 13-21). In the early modern travel narratives of Thomas More’s time, however, it is the increasing conjunction of these two previously distinct modalities that enables the creation of that new figure we have already glimpsed: the travel narrator as witness, an explorer whose very sense impressions carry legal weight. Vespucci’s more famous contemporary, Columbus, shows this process in action, in a letter widely distributed across Europe:

I found very many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them all I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me. To the first island which I found, I gave the name San Salvador, in remembrance of the Divine Majesty, Who has marvelously bestowed all this; the Indians call it ‘Guanahani.’ To the second I gave the name Isla de Santa María de Concepción; to the third, Fernandina; to the fourth, Isabella; to the fifth, Isla Juana, and so to each one I gave a new name (Columbus 1930: i.2).

In this short passage, the confluence of eyewitnessing, truth telling, and factuality that we saw earlier in Vespucci has suddenly become far more powerful. As Columbus makes his proclamations, formally naming each island he has landed upon and claiming it for his sovereigns, he quickly transforms the language of discovery into the language of legal possession, via the dual nature of the term witnessing.[10]

[16] The idea that witnessing in travel narrative can accomplish such grand aims, that it can be, in effect, an act of political power, is a concept Thomas More satirizes in Utopia. He stresses that all the members of his humanist circle have a stupendous power of witnessing and then applies that power to make his narrative seem more truthful. Raphael Hythloday is described by Peter Giles in his prefatory letter as having seen and heard about Utopia first-hand, rather than through others:

it was perfectly plain that he wasn’t just repeating what he had heard from other people but was describing exactly what he had seen close at hand with his own eyes and experienced in his own person, over a long period of time. (More 1995: 25)

The witnesses to Raphael’s testimony are equally sensation-oriented and equally reliable. More verifies Raphael’s account and Peter Giles corroborates More’s, ‘for I was present at his discourse quite as much as More himself’ (More 1995: 25). The French humanist Guillaume Budé takes the joke further in his own prefatory letter, first attesting boldly to Peter Giles’s truthfulness (‘I am bound to give [More] full credit on the word of Peter Giles of Antwerp’) and then dryly commenting that he has not actually ever met Giles but nonetheless places total trust in him since he is ‘the sworn and intimate friend of Erasmus’ (More 1995: 17). Conjuring the name of Erasmus, Europe’s pre-eminent humanist, is the finishing touch in this demonstration of how textual truth is established through a chain of accurate witnesses. More’s skill in eliding the difference between eye-witnessing (that of Hythloday in relation to Utopia) and character witnessing (that practiced by Budé in relation to Erasmus and More) by pretending the two are identical, interchangeable aspects of the same overall, infallible truth system underscores how the concept of ‘witnesses’ can create potent links, even equivalences, between what are actually very different types of evidence.

[17] Utopia’s parody of travel narrative extends also to the qualities in the witnessing voice itself, a persona characterized by extreme and excessive simplicity. In the letter from Thomas More to Peter Giles that prefaces the text’s first edition (More 1995: 31-39), More insists on the truthfulness of his writing (‘Truth in fact is the only thing at which I should aim and do aim in writing this book’ [More 1995: 31) and boasts of his memory as his most valuable asset (‘I wish my judgment and learning were up to my memory, which isn’t too bad’ [More 1995: 33]). He reinforces this sense of simplicity by lavishing, like other rustic travel tellers, the most attention on the least relevant details (the prolonged dispute about the length of the Anyder bridge [More 1995: 35]). He readily admits his lack of rhetorical skill (‘if the matter had to be set forth with eloquence, not just factually, there is no way I could have done that, however hard I worked, for however long a time’ [More 1995: 31, 33]), but presents this limitation as further evidence of his authorial worthiness — the conduit for truths that should lie entirely outside the self if they are to be believed.

[18] Such a conception of rhetoric, one that excludes both imagination and intellect from the truth-construction process, not only points in the direction of early modern travel narrative, but is also considerably anti-humanistic. Going beyond standard displays of Renaissance modesty, the ‘Letter to Giles’ reduces the author’s role to that of amanuensis (existing merely to ‘repeat what you and I together heard Raphael relate’ [More 1995: 31) and even repudiates, repeatedly, the value of labor, and even the power of thought, in crafting written prose.[12] Such qualities as ‘talent and learning’, ‘eloquence’, and ‘thinking through this topic,’ (More 1995: 31) are dispensed with and even presented as counter-productive. To ‘labour over the style’ (More 1995: 31) of a narrative would only detract from its truth, which, it is implied, is the sole reason for producing it. More’s humanist friends are likewise drawn into this disturbing definition of what it means to be a praiseworthy writer. Not only is More himself described as a very simple man, one whose aim is to ‘simply write down what I had heard’ (More 1995: 33), but Hythloday too speaks with a ‘casual simplicity’ that enables his words to approach ‘nearer the truth’ (More 1995: 31). Peter Giles likewise is a man without ‘fucus’ (More 1995: 42) or the red dye that would cover over his straightforward plainness; as Ralph Robinson puts it in his 1551 translation of Utopia: ‘no man vseth lesse simulation or dissimulation, in no man is more prudent simplicitie’ (More 1906: 28). Robinson’s oxymoronic phrasing stresses the alternative options for travel narration highlighted in Utopia: the genre can be seen as a simple one that emphasizes truthfulness above all else — but it can also be viewed, in a more humanist fashion, as a rhetorical construct to be approached, as all speech and writing should be, with ‘prudent’ care and skepticism.[13]

[19] Numerous critics have written about the power of early modern travel narratives to evoke the sense of primal truthfulness that Utopia interrogates. Mary C. Fuller explains how in early modern travel narratives, ‘the reliable report emerges at the end of an unbroken line from writing, to the memory of experience, to the experience of a particular thing, to the thing itself’ (Fuller 1993: 225).[14] Michel de Certeau has written similarly about how these texts aim to recreate, through recourse to both the senses and the body, the ‘real that was lost by language,’ the things the traveler’s body has been through and seen and not merely the other travel narratives he has read (de Certeau 1986: 74). As we have seen, Utopia parodies this simplistic logic on several levels — mocking both the ease with which ‘truth’ is perceived as the mere transcription of memories and also the ideal, simple personalities of the people best suited to convey such truths.

[20] Utopia’s parodic efforts go further still, extending to the use of autobiographical and biographical generic techniques; these are brought in to show how the plausibility of a traveler’s ‘real-world’ identity can lend credence to the less plausible events he encounters in a ‘new’ world. Vespucci, More’s immediate model, reminds his readers of his pedigree as an educated man and the confidant of sovereigns before launching into his adventures.[15] In the opening of Utopia, Thomas More follows Vespucci’s lead by painting a detailed, extremely accurate portrait of himself and the trade mission he was involved in at the time Utopia was composed. The account marks More as doubly truthful in the typical travel narrative mode: he is both a real person (associated with the truths of ‘fact’) and a trustworthy person (associated with the truths that emerge from his ‘honest’ and ‘honourable’ personality, as testified in the parerga). The signatures that open and close Utopia (‘the noted Thomas More, citizen and undersheriff of the famous city of Britain, London’ and ‘the most distinguished and learned man, Master Thomas More, citizen and undersheriff of London.’ [More 1995: 41, 249]) emphasize further how drawing on one’s reputation can lend weight to the truth claims of a text even when that text is a lie.

[21] More may have in fact seen this technique at work in Vespucci’s own Quatuor Navigationes. Since he read Vespucci’s narrative as it was printed in the Cosmographiae Introductio of Martin Waldseemüller, he might also have noticed that the work’s fulsome dedication to Renaud [René] II, the French duke of Lorraine, was peculiar given the nationality of either Vespucci or his patrons. The dedication’s reference to Vespucci and duke René being ‘fellow-students’ in their youth (Vespucci 1907: 85) is clearly not possible. In fact, the name of the original dedicatee, Piero Soderini (the dedication to whom may have been forged as well), was simply changed to suit Waldseemüller’s own patron when Vespucci texts (probably forgeries) were being translated from Italian to French and then Latin (Fischer and Wieser 1907: 11-13). Whatever duke René may have thought of this re-writing of an author’s identity to turn him into the dedicatee’s boyhood friend, the association of this joke with the insistent claims of the truthfulness of the Vespucci accounts contained in the Waldseemüller volume must have inspired Thomas More to create a utopian genre that is similarly based on the insistence that possible fabrications are absolutely true.

[22] The ability of ‘facts’ such as an author’s identity to cast their light of truthfulness upon other textual elements — such as an author’s capacity for honest witnessing and the value of his words, is a quality Utopia demonstrates on many levels, including that of print. This new technology, whose growth parallels the growth of travel narrative, promises, like travel narrative, an imminent epoch of refinement in human knowledge, largely predicated on the correction of past errors. In 1508, Erasmus lauds the ability of a good printer to ‘trace out what lies hid, to dig up what is buried, to call back the dead, to repair what is mutilated, to correct what is corrupted in so many ways’ (qtd. in McKitterick 2003: 109). By 1526, however, Erasmus’s optimism is dampened; in oft-noted comments added to his 1508 adage, ‘Festina Lente,’ he attacks printers: ‘… how little is the damage done by a careless or ignorant scribe, if you compare him with a printer!’ (qtd. in McKitterick 2003: 110). Thomas More is apparently aware, earlier on, of how well-intentioned technology can go awry. As with the example of a misused compass in Book One of Utopia (and recall, in this context, the swift use More’s early Protestant enemies made of the printing press), human foolishness will hardly be diminished by human invention; with the advent of the printing press, More wryly notes, Raphael Hythloday’s discourse, ‘hitherto known to but few’ will somehow appear the more truthful as further editions of Utopia are published, distributed, and read (More 1995: 249). Even the concept of ‘errata,’ that developing printer’s tool which suggests the ultimate perfectibility of a printed text, is the subject of a joke in Utopia, the one about providing that absolutely ‘correct’ figure for the length of the Utopian bridge at Amaurot.

[23] Thomas More’s exploration of the effects of print on the nature of truth in writing is also reflected in such visual elements of Utopia as the presentation of the Utopian alphabet and a sample of poetry written in it. Also noteworthy is the woodcut provided of the island of Utopia, an image that is new to cartography: part map, part illustration. Particularly in its original, 1516 version, this image echoes the woodcut accompanying early editions of Christopher Columbus’s ‘Letter to Santangel’; in both cases, as in travel narrative generally, the simplicity of the topography creates a new form of verisimilitude: basic, direct, and like the travel narrator’s prose, less at risk from contamination by the imaginations of fiction.

[24] It might be possible to see in Utopia even further indications of the power of travel narrative methodology; its conventions and premises not only facilitate audience responses of belief and trust, they also promote a powerful ideology of colonization — and indeed travel writings served as an important adjunct to early modern colonization projects. Utopia reveals how not only the content but also the rhetoric of those narratives can encourage the same naiveté in intercultural contexts as can be seen in approaches to the nature of truth.

[25] The career of Christopher Columbus provides an example. As we have seen, when he sets foot on a new territory, he names it, thereby establishing it in a new relationship with the Europe he represents. This relationship is of course one of possession and ownership, a master-slave dichotomy presumably perceived by Columbus as reflecting a divine natural order. ‘Come and see the people from heaven’ is how Columbus (1930: 10) imagines the Americans to be greeting him. He believes indigenous languages to be as unadorned as the bodies of those who speak them and as easily mastered. In such ways, the excited rhetoric of Columbus the adventurous travel narrator who encounters an amazing people who worship him like a god is quickly and unthinkingly transformed into the rhetoric of Columbus, the cruel and inept colonial administrator. The latter imagines establishing a profitable colony will be as easy as conveying his impressions of its ways of life.

[26] Utopia however mocks such a Columbian approach to intercultural contact, stressing the foolishness (and also the danger) of believing one can quickly grasp the cultural practices of other peoples. When the Anemolian ambassadors visit Utopia, they, like Columbus, imagine themselves ‘as the very gods’ aiming to ‘dazzle the eyes of the poor Utopians with the splendor of their garb’ (More 1995: 151). However, these visitors misread both the local customs (which don’t value gold) and more significantly the local value system which actively discourages both social hierarchy and pride. It is significant that the first thing we learn about Utopia is how well defended it is from outside invasion; more to the point, Utopia implies that such invasion seems to be expected primarily from Europeans.[16] It is they who were trying to seduce New World peoples both with their material goods, their shiny beads and trinkets and, more cunningly, with their rhetoric, which included extensive sermonizing. New World Utopians, however, recognize and prevent such dangers as readily as they can deter physical threats. They are immune to the lure of material possessions, and they take a dim view of those who refuse in engage in dialogue or have similarly non-humanistic approaches to rhetoric. Thus Utopia’s overzealous missionary, preaching that non-Christians are ‘impious and sacrilegious’ and suffer ‘the hell-fires they richly deserved’ (More 1995: 221), is deported; similarly, those who believe a treaty ‘can be made so strong and explicit that a government will not be able to worm out of it’ (More 1995: 199) are presented as unsuitable inhabitants of this humanist-oriented environment; as More puts it, ‘in that new world … nobody trusts treaties’[17]

[27] In the end, the very style and structure of Utopia offer a mode of travel narration to counter the sorts of travel narratives produced by Vespucci and Columbus as well as the effects those narratives produce. Humanists after all had been encouraging Europeans for over a century to develop greater respect for the cultures of antiquity; there is no reason to assume such responses would be out of place in relation to the New World. Moreover, since such true cultural contact always begins with language, Hythloday’s narrative is presented in a language mode that could be termed proto-ethnographic or proto-anthropological and which decisively rejects the standard medieval travel tropes of the grotesque, the monstrous, and the marvelous.[18] Unfortunately, the New World was not carefully explored with the anthropological mentality that Raphael displays; instead, its subsequent history is, to an extent, the legacy of a powerful competing mode of travel narrative — one which even now asserts itself in the form of claiming to profess truths that are so transparent they need not be examined.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong


[1] Rudolf Hirsch (1976) presents a full list, year by year, of travel narratives published in the early age of discovery. By 1515, when Utopia is written, there are available numerous editions of Vespucci texts (mainly in Latin and German but also in French and Italian) as well as Columbus’s first letter announcing the discovery of the New World. The first of Peter Martyr’s Decades and the popular travel narrative collection, Paesi Novamente Ritrovati, were also available by 1515. See especially Appendix II. [back to text]

[2] We know that, in the process of writing Utopia, Thomas More read this particular text attributed to Vespucci since the much shorter Mundus Novus, also so attributed, does not contain this detail.[back to text]

[3] Two additional useful essays on the relationship of Utopia to the New World discoveries of Amerigo Vespucci are those by Christoph Strosetzki and Peter C. Herman.[back to text]

[4] The 1493 Papal Bull Inter Caetera had already justified Spain’s New World claims on the explicit basis of Christopher Columbus’s actions there (Alexander VI 1984: 1.272); the title of Vespucci’s ‘Four Voyages’ suggests a desire on the part of Vespucci (or more likely his Portuguese patrons), to compete with these more established four voyages of Columbus (Gerbi 1975: 45).[back to text]

[5] For a discussion of the genre of the ‘Relación,’ see Mignolo 1982. In addition to being a text that reflects the new imperatives of European expansionism, the ‘Four Voyages’ also differs from medieval travel texts through its proto-scientific presentation, a facet particularly noticeable in the Waldseemüller Cosmographiae Introductio where Vespucci’s accounts are preceded by the ‘Cosmography’ itself — a brief but efficient summary of early sixteenth-century cosmological knowledge, replete with maps and diagrams relating to such topics pertinent to discovery as parallels, climates, and winds. The tenor of this document (the one that first placed the New World on a map) establishes a similar context — one of facts, definitions and precision — for the Vespucci narratives that follow. [back to text]

[6] See Pagden 1993, especially chapter two, 51-88, on the importance of the visual or ‘autoptic imagination’ in this era.[back to text]

[7] For a sample of scornful humanist commentary on the absurdities of medieval romance, see Goodman 1998: 15-16.[back to text]

[8] More’s Latin, ‘nusquam fere non invenias’/‘no place where you will not find’ monsters refers to Nusquama, the original title of Utopia, thereby stressing that in this new mode of travel reporting, there is no place for such things. [back to text]

[9] For Lucian’s popularity and influence in the Renaissance, see Marsh 1998. [back to text]

[10] Columbus’s diary entries recounting these landings emphasize the importance he placed upon ‘witnessing’ as a mode of possessing: ‘The Admiral called to the two captains and to the others…and he said that they should be witnesses that, in the presence of all, he would take, as in fact he did take, possession of the said island for the king and for the queen his lords …’ (Columbus 1989: 63-65).[back to text]

[11] In her study of the institutionalization of Northern Renaissance humanism, Lisa Jardine (1993) shows how Erasmus and his humanist circle used the techniques that More uses in Utopia’s parerga — mutual praise and diligent cross-referencing — to build up their own reputations and humanism generally. More can use this practice himself even as he satirizes it.[back to text]

[12] As the Cambridge editors note, when ‘More’ writes to Giles that ‘I faced no problem in finding my materials, and had no reason to ponder the arrangement of them. All I had to do was repeat what you and I together heard Raphael relate’ he is actually referring to the ‘three steps of literary composition [inventio, dispositio, elocutio] as… treated in the classical textbooks of rhetoric and their medieval and Renaissance successors’ (More 1995: 31). Yet More refers to these practices only to stress their irrelevance to the composition of Utopia.[back to text]

[13] Adrian Johns has written of the power of print to imply such qualities as ‘fixity’ even in the perceptions of some modern historians who should be more alert to the way meanings are culturally constructed; as Johns argues, all ‘texts, printed or not, cannot compel readers to react in specific ways, but … must be interpreted in cultural spaces the character of which helps to decide what counts as a proper reading’ (Johns 1998: 20). It is the aim of Utopia to clarify the implications of two such alternative ‘cultural spaces’ (humanistic or travel narrative oriented) in which readings of early modern travel narratives can occur. [back to text]

[14] Fuller’s essay on Sir Walter Raleigh (1993) describes how he was executed in 1618 precisely on the grounds of being a weak link in the chain of narrative truth extending from the New World to Europe. [back to text]

[15] Christopher Columbus, notoriously, goes even further, insisting, especially in his later writings, that he was directed by God to discover the New World. [back to text]

[16] Bartolomé de Las Casas had already published, in 1516, his Memorial de Remedios Para Las Indias (1995), outlining exploitation in the Americas and suggesting solutions. [back to text]

[17] Hanan Yoran has pointed out the sophistication of Utopian approaches to rhetoric; Utopians for instance are highly capable of comprehending the ‘sign systems’ of their enemies and of using those languages against them, through such measures as offering rewards for the assassination of enemy leaders (Yoran 2005: 21). [back to text]

[18] For a discussion of these various tropes in medieval and early modern travel narratives and the way they contribute to creating an overall discourse of ‘wonder,’ see Greenblatt (1991) and Sell (2006). [back to text]


Alexander VI. 1984 [1493]. ‘Inter Caetera’, in New Iberian World, 5 vols., ed. by John H. Parry and Robert G. Keith (New York: NY Times Book Co): 1.272

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Columbus, Christopher. 1989 [1492]. The Diario of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America 1492-1493, transcribed and trans. by Oliver Dunn and James E. Kelley, Jr. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press)

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Fuller, Mary C. 1993. ‘Ralegh’s Fugitive Gold: Reference and Deferral in The Discoverie of Guiana’, in New World Encounters, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt (Berkeley: University of California Press): 218-40

Fuller, Mary C. 1995. Voyages in Print: English Travel to America, 1576-1624 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Gerbi, Antonello. 1975. Nature in the New World, trans. Jeremy Moyle (Pittsburgh: University Pittsburgh Press)

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Greenblatt, Stephen. 1991. Marvelous Possessions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Herman, Peter C. 1999. ‘Who’s That in the Mirror? Thomas More’s Utopia and the Problematic of the New World’, in Opening the Borders: Inclusivity in Early Modern Studies: Essays in Honor of James V. Mirollo , ed. by Peter C. Herman (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses): 109-32

Hirsch, Rudolf. 1976. ‘Printed Reports on the Early Discoveries and Their Reception’, in First Images of America, 2 vols., ed. by Fredi Chiappelli (Berkeley: University of California Press): 2.537-60

Jardine, Lisa. 1993. Erasmus: Man of Letters: The Construction of Charisma in Print (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

Johns, Adrian. 1998. The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Las Casas, Bartolomé de. 1995 [1516]. ‘Memorial de Remedios Para Las Indias’, in Obras Completas (Madrid: Alianza): 23-48

Levine, Joseph M. 1997. ‘Thomas More and the English Renaissance: History and Fiction in Utopia’, in The Historical Imagination in Early Modern Britain: History, Rhetoric, and Fiction. 1500-1800, ed. by Donald R. Kelly and David Harris Sacks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

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Rebhorn, Wayne A. 1976. ‘Thomas More’s Enclosed Garden: Utopia and Renaissance Humanism’. English Literary Renaissance 6.2: 140-55

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John Lilburne and the new politics

John Lilburne and the new politics

J.C. Davis

Michael Braddick, The Common Freedom of the People: John Lilburne and the English Revolution (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2018), ISBN: 978-0-19-880323-2, 391pp., £25.00.

[1] Dying in obscurity, it was nevertheless almost inevitable that the funeral arrangements for John Lilburne (1615? – 1657), one of the great courtroom battlers of the seventeenth century, should be contested in form. The stark simplicities of a Quaker funeral were too much (or too little!) for some of his more ardent followers. But from the start his celebrity has been touched by controversy. Hero or obsessive, trouble maker or man of principle, self-promoting attention seeker or martyr to injustice, brave or foolhardy, his reputation has oscillated between these polarities over the intervening centuries. From the eighteenth century onwards, progressives and radicals saw him as something of a hero in the forward momentum of the struggle for religious toleration, civil rights, resistance to arbitrary government, promotion of the sovereignty of the people, government by their consent and the rule of law. As Michael Braddick puts it, Lilburne ‘had a long run as a champion for secular political principles’ (291).[1] But of recent years his star has waned. So too has that of the Levellers of whom he was once seen as a principal leader. Once hailed as an innovative movement advocating democracy their democratic credentials and positive influence on the English Revolution have been called in question. So too Lilburne’s grasp of the political realities his day has come to seem fragile by comparison with his robust capacity to make his own occasions the focus of attention.

[2] Yet here we have a comprehensive political life, rather than biography (xv), of him by one of this generation’s most distinguished and productive historians of the English Revolution. As might be expected it is meticulously researched and unlikely to be exceeded in its recovery of many aspects of Lilburne’s life: his networks amongst the godly, the citizenry of London and the worlds of print and radical agitation from the later 1630s down to the mid-1650s. It is particularly strong in tracing his (and his family’s) struggles with Sir Henry Vane sr. and Sir Arthur Hesilrige over the spoils of war in north-east England, his protracted pursuit of compensation and reparations for past injustices to him, and his activities as consultant and lobbyist in the disputes over Fenland drainage in the 1650s. In fact, as Braddick sees it, the balance of this political life lies not so much in engagement as a Leveller as with a new world of politics bound up with print, lobbying and partisan mobilisation.

[3] Born, probably in Sunderland in 1615, into a gentry family with connections through his mother to the royal court at Greenwich Palace, Lilburne retained strong links with the north-east throughout his life. Apprenticed to a London clothier in 1630, he was soon active in the puritan underground opposed to the religious policies of Charles I and Archbishop William Laud. He distributed anti-episcopalian literature smuggled in from the Netherlands and in 1637 witnessed the savage punishments meted out in the streets of London to William Prynne, John Bastwick and Henry Burton for publishing their critiques of the regime. The following year, Lilburne was himself arrested and sentenced to be flogged through the streets of the capital, then pilloried and imprisoned indefinitely. Such exemplary punishment backfired with Lilburne turning it into a personal martyrdom, preaching throughout his ordeal and lambasting his persecutors while insisting that his case was that of all decent Englishmen. It was a self-image he was repeatedly to project throughout his career. But, at this stage, his thought remained a mixture of anti-authoritarianism, fuelled by religious sentiment, and the conservatism of the common law mind, appealing to precedent and inherited rights.[2]

[4] In November 1640 one of Oliver Cromwell’s first acts in the Long Parliament was to raise the case of John Lilburne and obtain his release. The latter was soon campaigning against the Earl of Strafford as a symbol of the personal rule, against the bishops and against Roman Catholic members of the House of Lords. On the outbreak of civil war, in midsummer 1642, he joined the parliamentary army and gave distinguished service at the first major battle, Edgehill, only to be taken prisoner by the royalists at Brentford. Facing a trial for treason at the royalist headquarters in Oxford, in May 1643 he was released as part of a prisoner exchange. He promptly joined Cromwell in the army of the Eastern Association under the command of the Earl of Manchester, seeing service at Lincoln, Marston Moor and, against Manchester’s orders (although the Earl later claimed credit for it), securing the surrender of Tickhill Castle. But increasingly, Lilburne, like others, had to confront conflict within the parliamentary coalition between, in particular, those who advocated a presbyterian church settlement and those seeking greater liberty for the consciences of individuals and gathered churches, and between those who were resigned to the necessity – as they saw it – of negotiated settlement and those who sought outright victory in the war. Manchester backed the former options, Cromwell (and Lilburne) the latter. By later 1644 the quarrel had escalated and resulted in the Self Denying Ordinance (whereby members of either House of Parliament were required to leave the army) and the formation of the New Model Army. At this point. Lilburne abandoned military service principally because of his aversion to the oath of the Solemn League and Covenant which all soldiers in the parliamentary armies were now required to swear. But he took with him his fear of a Presbyterian/Scots imposed settlement and a suspicion that the seeds of a parliamentary defection from the goals for which he and others had seen themselves fighting had already been sown.

[5] By 1646 and once parliamentary victory was assured, that struggle intensified as groups contested the shape of the final settlement. Over the next two years its main focus became the confrontation between the presbyterian majority in Parliament and the city of London, on the one hand, and the army with its amalgam of military grievances and conscientious principles, on the other. At the same time, Lilburne was frequently at loggerheads with the House of Lords and in the process developed a portfolio of demands including equality before the law, the right to a trial before a jury of one’s peers, that trials could only be on specified charges, facing known accusers in established courts under known laws, and a denial of the jurisdiction of the House of Lords over commoners. In 1647 and in the face of the presbyterians’ attempts to mobilise support, Lilburne became prominent in a counter-mobilisation of pamphleteering, petitioning, demonstrations and attempted dialogue with the army.

[6] With the military occupation of London and the virtual purge of Parliament in that year, the dissolution of government looked to be either in train or imminent and, in a letter to Cromwell, Lilburne insisted that tyranny in a parliament had to be as resistible as tyranny in a King. In its search for a legitimate basis for settlement, the General Council of the Army permitted debate on a draft new constitution (an Agreement of the People). The indeterminate outcome of the Putney debates was soon overwhelmed by Charles I’s deal with the Scots and the second civil war. The New Model Army’s decisive victory in the succeeding campaigns led to a further sharpening of issues and the sense of urgency around a settlement. Lilburne and his colleagues were once more engaged in discussions with the military about such constitutional provision as would allow for unicameral government without a King or with a token monarch only. The officers moved to produce their own Agreement of the People at which point Lilburne walked out of the talks, objecting both to their proposed constraints on liberty of conscience and the retention of a punitive capacity in the state which might operate outside of the known law. Moves to bring the King to trial for his life before a new and legitimate authority was erected was a tipping point. But, in effect, Lilburne had abandoned what was to prove his greatest opportunity to influence the course of the revolution.

[7] Faced with Pride’s Purge, the trial and execution of the King and the abolition of the House of Lords by a purged and unrepresentative Rump, Lilburne and his friends excoriated the new tyranny and its machiavellian originators, England’s new chains discovered. Their status and influence was such that their challenge could not be ignored by a regime struggling for support and seeking to escape dependence on force of arms. Lilburne was arrested and brought to trial for treason in October 1649. It was the second most important trial of that momentous year and, to the administration’s chagrin, the jury acquitted him to a display of public rejoicing. Not only was the unpopularity of the government exposed but, in another reproof to them, in December Lilburne was elected to the Common Council of London. That election was quashed by the authorities and he turned to pursue reparations and property claims. He was soon in vituperative verbal conflict with Sir Arthur Hesilrige. The Rump took attacks on such a powerful member of parliament as treasonous and, without any hearing of the case, condemned him to a huge fine. By a subsequent Act of Parliament he was condemned to exile with any subsequent return being a capital offence. Such a civil death penalty, arbitrarily imposed, gave testimony to the regime’s fear of his fame and influence.

[8] The Rump, which had exiled Lilburne, was itself ousted by Cromwell in April 1653 and Lilburne, without waiting for permission, seized the opportunity to return from exile. His claim was that either the Rump had been expelled as an illegitimate authority, in which case its actions against him were illegal, or Cromwell had acted without lawful authority and so had no jurisdiction over him. Inevitably he was arrested and a government, struggling for what shreds of authority it could find, brought him to trial at the Old Bailey in July and August 1653. Lilburne once more turned this into a protracted piece of political theatre, showcasing the flimsiness of the government’s claims to legitimacy and its proceedings against him. In a sensational, if ambiguous, verdict, the jury found him ‘not guilty of any crime worthy of death’. Embarrassed and fearful, the government kept him prisoner, first on Jersey, then in Dover, allowing him parole only in the last few weeks before his death in August 1657. His two trials under the Commonwealth had raised the most fundamental constitutional and judicial questions about the republic. Having abandoned tradition and consent what could legitimately authorise its rule? The onset of the Protectorate and England’s first written constitution, the Instrument of Government, in December 1653 was to a considerable extent shaped as an answer to that question.

[9] How had an agitating apprentice, a restless pursuer of slights and perceived injustices, ‘an impulsive, intemperate man blind to the virtues of prudence’ (110; see also 158), an unsystematic thinker (107, 277-8), and – despite his web of associates – something of a loner (272-3) come to achieve such status as to frighten a revolutionary government with overwhelming military backing into blatantly illegal acts? It is here that Braddick’s new study makes its most interesting and innovative contribution. While fully aware of the importance of Lilburne’s capacity for and skill in self-dramatisation, his exploitation of celebrity and sensation, he sets this in the context of a new and emergent politics. In many respects the context itself was new. From November 1640, Parliament was sitting, for the first time, more or less continuously, displacing traditional curial politics. Parliamentary committees assumed more and more functions of government administration and the details of policy making. As representative of the people, these bodies were subject to outside influences expressing, or claiming to express, the popular will. Petitioning, pamphleteering, demonstrating, lobbying, working the corridors and committee rooms of Westminster, Lilburne was to prove an adept, if not always effective, practitioner of these new arts to the point where, in the early 1650s, he may have been able to earn some of his keep as a consultant to others on them (204-26). But equally, an important part of the developing context was the emergence of new partisan and subscriptional communities,[3] displacing the old political communities of locality, corporation, faction and personal fealty. These new communities had to be identified and mobilised and, for these, print, petitioning, protest gatherings and demonstrations, as well as tavern meetings were all important. Braddick has made this theme of partisan mobilisation something of his own (see for example Braddick 2008, especially Ch. 16). But partisan mobilisation also required ideas and symbols around which followers could rally. Lilburne here becomes a key player in the emergence of this new politics. For that reason, this book will remain a seminal contribution not only to the study of John Lilburne but also in understanding the longer term legacy of the English Revolution.

[10] Braddick is less easy, perhaps less assured, in dealing with key and related aspects of Lilburne’s thought. Two issues stand out. They concern whether he was primarily religious or a secular thinker and whether his appeal was most typically to civic law and civil rights or to natural law and natural rights. On the one hand, Braddick sees him as beginning in intense religiosity, with a sense of the immediacy of God’s presence (xi, 6). Reacting to the brutality of his punishment in 1638, he proclaimed, ‘Wellcome be the Cross of Christ’, and thanked God for seeing him through the ordeal (23). Called by the Almighty to fight the battle of all Englishmen, liberty of conscience, or the freedom to serve God not man, was central to him (86-8, 272). Later, faith sustained him in exile. In a letter to his long-suffering wife, he wrote of God’s dealings with him, ‘if it be his pleasure to let this cross I am under to lie upon me, for the tryall of my faith & patience & sonne-like dependence upon him, his Good will & pleasure be done’ (231). At the same time, Braddick suggests that, even in the face of his punishment in 1638, Lilburne was putting secular before religious concerns (26). In his first prison pamphlet, A light for the ignorant (Amsterdam, 1638), according to Braddick he was arguing for ‘a radical separation of religious and secular authority’ (30).[4] Again, from 1645 his verbal battle with Prynne was ‘more secular’ than religious and legal rights took precedence over liberty of conscience (88-9). In the end while ‘Christian rhetoric had suffused Lilburne’s writings … he had not defined his cause in religious terms’ (262). This is somehow to see language as separable from the substance of the message and one wonders if the secular religious distinction is not something of an anachronism or if Lilburne would have recognised it. Is it more appropriate to think of civic law, natural law, the law of nations and divine law as ideally operating in harmony, as complementary? Certainly, Lilburne did not want the state to interfere with conscience since citizens were not the property of the state but held their consciences in trust from God. The limitations on sovereignty allowed to a state, even one enjoying the consent of the governed – no authority to force conscience in religious or military matters (conscription) – were not secular in origin but were determined by a belief in God’s exclusive authority over conscience, that is by the force of a religious conviction. So there were a set of assumptions about will and law which were underpinned by ideas of the limited nature of autonomy and of stewardship (cf. Davis 2000).[5] And Lilburne and the Levellers seem to have held to these convictions, and little else, with remarkable consistency.

[11] In other respects, Braddick is right to see him as a pragmatic campaigner, a polemicist willing, within reason, to use such languages as fitted the occasion – common law, natural law, the law of nations, divine law (cf. Burgess 1993: 45-67). ‘In truth he was an activist drawing on those arguments that would work at particular moments, while collaborating with people who shared his political goals but not necessarily his ideological grounds’ (107). There was, of course, a Biblical formula which licensed him for such pragmatism in relation to civil affairs. It was that God had ordained government but left its particular form to the choice and creativity of men (Davis 2000: 290. For this formula as commonplace see, for example, Parker 1642: 1; Goodwin 1642: 7-8; Williams 1644: 196.) As Andrew Sharp concluded in a format which almost gets us there, ‘He would rather that all were subject to God’s law, but saw that most were not and tried to come to terms with such a world by way of human lawmaking’ (Sharp 2006).

[12] However questionable the dichotomies of secular and religious in this context, this book remains an important and authoritative contribution, not only to our understanding of Freeborn John but also of his place in the English Revolution and of the Revolution itself. Lilburne’s political influence in his own time and beyond rested not on traditional sources but on skill in mobilising support, exploiting print, lobbying, working the streets and corridors of power and committee rooms and, to a degree, on self dramatisation. It is a form of politics which is with us still.

University of East Anglia



[1] Numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the book under review. [back to text]

[2] For the classic account of the common law mind see Pocock 2008.[back to text]

[3] Some of them, like the Levellers with their constituency and ward organisation and their manifestos, were teetering on the edge of becoming parties.[back to text]

[4] Such a separation of the spheres of Grace and nature takes us back almost eighty years to Woodhouse 1938. For other influential emphases on the Levellers as primarily secular in their thinking see Haller and Davies 1964: 7, and Wolfe 1967: 3. For a more recent emphasis on the secular in Leveller (and Lilburne’s) thought see Foxley 2013, and my review of it (Davis 2014). [back to text]

[5] Davis 2000. For the argument that the Levellers never distinguished between divine and natural law but saw them as complementary see especially 281-7. [back to text]



Braddick, Michael. 2008. God’s Fury, England’s Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars (London: Allen Lane)

Burgess, Glenn. 1993. ‘Protestant Polemic: The Leveller Pamphlets’, Parergon 11:2, pp. 45-67

Davis, J. C. 2000. ‘The Levellers and Christianity’, in Peter Gaunt (ed.), The English Civil War: The Essential Readings (Oxford: Blackwell) pp. 279-302

_____. 2014. ‘Review of The Levellers: Radical Thought in the English Revolution, by Rachel Foxley’, in The English Historical Review, 129:538, pp. 717-19.

Foxley, Rachel. 2013. The Levellers: Radical Thought in the English Revolution (Manchester: Manchester University Press)

Goodwin, John. 1642. Anti-Cavalierisme (London: Henry Overton)

Haller, William and Godfrey Davies (eds.). 1964. The Leveller Tracts 1647-53 (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith)

Parker, Henry. 1642. Observations Upon Some of His Majesties Late Answers and Expresses London: Willian Sheares)

Pocock, J. G. A. 2008. The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Sharp, Andrew. 2006. ‘John Lilburne’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/16654

Williams, Roger. 1644. The Bloody Tenent (London)

Wolfe, Don M. (ed.). 1967. Leveller Manifestoes of the Puritan Revolution (London: Frank Cass)

Woodhouse, A. S. P.. 1938. ‘Introduction’ to Puritanism and Liberty: Being the Army Debates (1647-9), ed. by A. S. P. Woodhouse (London: Dent and Sons)

Introduction: Alison Thorne and her legacy

Introduction: Alison Thorne and her legacy

Dermot Cavanagh & Rob Maslen

[1] This special issue of the Journal of the Northern Renaissance celebrates the life and work of a scholar who had a major hand in the foundation of the journal, Dr Alison Thorne. The occasion is a sad one. At the height of her powers Alison was struck down by an illness that steadily robbed her of her ability to draw on the rich resources of her memory, forcing her into early retirement at the height of her powers as an academic. But despite the sad events that brought it into being, the process of assembling the issue has been wholly positive – even, at times, exhilarating, since it has given us an opportunity to reflect on Alison’s remarkable contribution to early modern studies, and to express our gratitude for the impact she has had on our lives and on those of our fellow scholars in the field worldwide. The conference at which the original versions of many of these essays were given as papers (‘Early Modern Voices: A Symposium for Alison Thorne’, University of Glasgow, October 2015) was a happy affair, which Alison enjoyed and was clearly moved by. And the issue itself gains a real sense of coherence from its association with her work. In particular it speaks to her interlocking fascinations with the complexities of early modern rhetoric, the rich diversity of Shakespeare’s writings and the constantly expanding territory of women’s studies. The essays in it are distinguished and we think she will take pleasure in them.

[2] The keystone of Alison’s achievement as a writer is her monograph, Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare: Looking Through Language (Palgrave, 2000). Partly based on the PhD she completed under the supervision of Professor David Daniell at University College London – and this issue marks her links with UCL with essays from two of the university’s most distinguished early modern scholars – the book reads Shakespeare’s work in the light of the close association between early modern theories of painting and of rhetoric, the art of verbal persuasion on which the Elizabethan education system was largely founded. From a meticulous study of the most influential Italian theorists of painting Alison identifies a complex interplay between the quest to establish a set of universal rules on which painters might base their practice – in particular the rules of perspective – and the growing conviction among sixteenth-century artists that the fluidities of intuition and imaginative invention should take precedence over rigid codification in guiding the painter’s hand and eye, as he strove to outdo nature in composing images of unprecedented beauty or memorable strangeness. She went on to discover evidence of Shakespeare’s engagement with a similar interplay between theory and resistance to theory, often articulated through visual metaphors and showing a serious interest in peculiarly English painting practices. Focusing on a number of plays – comedy, tragedy, satire, romance – written between the late sixteenth century and the end of his career, Alison brought to bear on each text some specific aspect of Elizabethan debates about the visual arts, from the multiple points of view at work in As You Like It to the subliminal presence of distorting anamorphism in Troilus and Cressida, the political operations of the imagination’s inner eye in Antony and Cleopatra and the competing verbal and visual perspectives of the court masque as mediated by The Tempest. In the process she brought alive the many metaphors of vision and the visual arts deployed by Shakespeare and his commentators to a degree no scholar had done before, and laid the groundwork for continued study not just of Shakespeare and painting but of Shakespeare’s understanding of the imagination as an engine for shaping the world, and of the individual mind as a nexus for diverse perceptions of the self. The meticulous scholarship in this book, coupled with its rare subtlety of textual analysis and the keen alertness it evinces to social, political and theoretical nuance, marked it out as a major contribution to the growing field of word and image studies.

[3] Alison once said that she thought she would only write two or three monographs in her academic career, and it’s clear from Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare why she thought so: the research for each of its chapters would have served a more facile writer with material for several essays. Her plans for a second monograph began to take shape soon after the publication of the first: she wanted to write a major book on female supplication and complaint in the early modern period, identifying supplication in particular as a mode of discourse often associated with women which was seen by rhetoricians as having immense affective power, and hence political efficacy, even when deployed by the most uneducated and marginalized members of any given community. As it turned out, Alison never published this important work between hard covers, but her assembled writings on the topic amount to more than a monograph’s worth in its impact on her fellow scholars. With Jennifer Richards, another of our contributors, she organized one of the epoch-defining conferences of the new millennium, ‘Renaissance Rhetoric, Gender and Politics’ at the University of Strathclyde, and edited the follow-up collection of essays, Rhetoric, Women and Politics in Early Modern England (London and New York: Routledge, 2007). A brief online search for the book reveals the remarkable impact it has had on women’s studies since its publication. Most significantly, it offered its readers new ways of understanding how women could be conceived of as politically active in the early modern period, despite the overwhelming theoretical pressure on them to remain silent, humble and spatially enclosed at all times. The irony of such injunctions being laid on women in educational tracts and conduct manuals at a time when England was ruled by a female monarch is pointed up in the book’s important introduction, which draws on Alison’s identification in Vision and Rhetoric of the substantial gap between rhetorical theory and practice in early modern England to show how some women took full advantage of the various examples of female articulacy made available through legal and religious conventions, oral tradition and classical literature. The introduction culminates in a discussion of certain forms of rhetoric embraced by early modern women which can be ‘difficult for us nowadays properly to appreciate’, among them ‘such apparently disabling yet pervasively used speech forms as supplication and complaint, which accentuated the speaker’s lowliness, weakness and incapacity’. For Alison and Jennifer, female writers recognised the extent to which such apparently diminishing forms of discourse ‘could provide a highly effective vehicle for social and moral protest’; and Alison went on to explore literary, religious and legal instances of this tradition of female social and political intervention in a series of substantial articles, the last of which was published in 2015, not long after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

[4] As well as Alison’s fellow editor Jennifer, two more of our contributors also made significant contributions to Rhetoric, Women and Politics, Helen Hackett and Susan Wiseman, and it was with Susan that Alison edited a special issue of Renaissance Studies dedicated to the single most important classical source of female complaint literature, Ovid’s Heroides. As well as supplying us with a welcome focus on Ovid’s collection of verse letters from women of Greek and Roman myth and legend, whose influence on early modern literature has long been neglected in favour of Ovid’s more encyclopaedic Metamorphoses, the issue exemplifies Alison’s dynamic organizational activities in the sphere of early modern scholarship. For many years she served as the Scottish trustee on the board of the Society for Renaissance Studies. She also served as the University of Strathclyde’s representative with EMSIS (Early Modern Studies in Scotland), playing a vital role in its running and organising the 2011 colloquium on ‘The Legacy of the Will’. In the late 1990s she was instrumental in setting up the Scottish Institute of Northern Renaissance Studies (SINRS), whose Masters programme she convened for almost a decade (2001-10) with a good humour and efficiency that belied the difficulty of coordinating contributions from academics attached to three different institutions, the Universities of Glasgow, Stirling and Strathclyde. The enduring legacy of SINRS resides in its graduates and this journal, which is also backed, appropriately enough, by the Society for Renaissance Studies; as its co-founder Patrick Hart writes in the editorial for Issue 7, ‘Without Alison’s support and advice this journal would certainly not exist today’. Alison’s support for the journal’s editors is of a piece with her dynamic support of her undergraduates, PhD students  – two of whom, Douglas Clark and Steven Veerapen, contribute to this volume – and professional colleagues, both within and beyond the field of early modern studies. It’s a striking testimony to her extraordinary personal and intellectual generosity that so many of them have come together to make this issue possible.

[5] Our aim, then, in this collection is to reflect the trajectory as well as the scope of Alison’s interests and the continuing resonances of her work. Our contributors seek to challenge some fundamental assumptions about the literary culture of early modernity and they do so by opening new perspectives and listening carefully to some neglected voices. We hope this captures something of the spirit of Alison’s contribution to scholarship. We begin with René Weis’ essay on ‘Shakespeare’s DNAs and the daughters of his house’, which questions the readiness to overlook connections between Shakespeare’s life and works. The stream of topical references in the plays indicates a continuous responsiveness to public events and there are also more private allusions to friendships and family relationships. His essay explores some suggestive convergences between Shakespeare’s creative life and his experiences as a son, brother and, crucially, father and grandfather. Weis points, especially, to the birth of his granddaughter, Elizabeth Hall (later Barnard), during the composition of Pericles in 1608. His essay considers the physical traces and remains of Shakespeare’s daughters and granddaughter as well as their presence within the narrative and thematic preoccupations of a range of works from Romeo and Juliet until the late plays.

[6] In ‘He is a better scholar than I thought he was’, Helen Hackett notes a further possible connection between Shakespeare’s life and work, in this instance The Merry Wives of Windsor, where the name of William (Page) is given to the recipient of a lesson in Latin delivered by the Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans. If Shakespeare was recollecting his own educational experience, it is by no means clear who maintains the upper hand in this comic sequence. Yet as this essay points out, historians of education would question whether Elizabethan schooling would have tolerated such playfulness. In many of their accounts, grammar schools were dominated by a dismaying degree of authoritarianism that instilled conformity. On the other hand, literary critics perceive the same schooling in a radically different way: as endowing a generation of exceptional writers with a rich variety of rhetorical and performance skills. On this view, the grammar school fostered not only the expressive powers of its students but also their intellectual independence. How could the same system elicit such divergent interpretations? Helen Hackett’s essay invites us to take seriously the commitment of schools to the cultivation of both literary knowledge and linguistic expertise and queries the readiness of some scholars to see them as places of punishment and constraint. She emphasises the complexity of the links between educational experience, broadly understood, and creative energy in the period and documents the educational backgrounds of a range of leading Elizabethan authors.

[7] In ‘Nicholas Breton and Early Explorations of the Mind’, Douglas Clark turns to the heterogeneous (and sometimes unclassifiable) range of work produced by a writer who is neglected and sometimes disparaged. Clark shows how Breton maintained a compelling, if idiosyncratic, interest in the psyche in ways which deviate from the period’s dominant understanding of interiority. In his view, Breton explored the complexities of mental phenomena in a manner which has been unjustly overlooked – including a canny commercial interest in the appetites and inclinations of potential readers. In The Wil of Wit (1597), Breton offers a surprising account of the will in which it is not automatically connected to excess or transgression. Instead, it is seen more as a wandering vagrant within the mind and part of a general tendency towards disordered thoughts and passions. This is one of several surprising constructions of inwardness in his writing which expands our understanding of how diversely interiority was depicted in the period. The ways in which processes of thought were imagined was constantly shifting and Breton’s work expresses the difficulties of conceptualizing these in fixed or unchanging ways.

[8] In ‘The Voice of Anne Askew’, Jennifer Richards questions a further enduring assumption about the body’s relationship to the mind in early modernity: that the eye prevailed over the ear as the primary sense for understanding. Her essay is concerned to revise our view of male-authored female-voiced texts in the Renaissance, an impulse that also inspired Alison Thorne’s later work. In Richards’ essay, the privileging of the eye over the ear is linked to another influential story that concerns the silencing of women’s voices. The connection between these narratives is explored through the story of Anne Askew who read the newly translated and printed English Bible in Lincoln Cathedral for six days in the early 1540s and who suffered arrest, interrogation, torture and execution as a consequence. Askew’s testimony survives only in the account of her Examinations (or interrogations) which were smuggled out of her cell and then heavily edited by the reformer John Bale. Richards suggests however that the physicality of Askew’s voice can still be heard even within Bale’s account of her experience. Throughout her interrogations, Askew claims the right to speak the words of the Bible aloud and to interpret them: she breathes and speaks scripture. There were precedents for this experience of the Bible as a “stream of speech” that women were entitled to express as well as men – notably in Erasmus’ Praise of Folly – and there are multiple examples of male-authored texts that deploy ventriloquized female personae. These examples also help us to understand how Askew’s voice resists what she is being asked to say and how she speaks back to these demands through the voice of scripture, including her appropriation of King David’s words in the Psalms. By attending to this performative aspect of the Examinations, Richards argues, we can recover more fully the empowerment that can follow from using the voice in the past as well as the present.

[9] In ‘Slanderisation and Censure-ship’, Steven Veerapen explores another means by which dissentient voices could speak, in this case within the discourse of slander that flourished in the Tudor period long before the more familiar era of Stuart libel but anticipating some of its most important techniques and implications. His essay shows how writers exploited loopholes or areas of indeterminacy in the face of increasingly censorious action being taken against language that was deemed to be socially divisive, including laws against slander, libel, and treason. The discourses of counsel and satire were especially useful resources in attempts to outwit these constraints, but Veerapen concentrates on the equally ingenious deployment of seemingly innocent or even edifying language for a scandalous purpose; moments when ‘good texts go bad’ but in ways that are not actionable. Indeed, the risk (and pleasure) involved in such instances belongs to the reader’s interpretation rather than the author or performer’s intent which can always be defended to some extent with a plausible denial of any malicious purpose. The essay identifies some key examples of this practice from contemporary sermons and ballads. Its opportunities and risks are dramatized forcefully in the anonymous chronicle play Thomas of Woodstock — or, as it is sometimes thought of, Richard II, Part 1 – where a melody that is only whistled is thought of as potentially treasonous. As the play shows, such tactics had their dangers especially at moments of heightened tension where their applicability was an especially volatile matter. A further graphic example of the hazards involved is evident in the fate of Shakespeare’s Richard II when a performance was apparently commissioned by the Earl of Essex before his much disputed ‘rebellion’.

[10] We close this editorial with a list of Alison’s publications, which we hope will inspire our readers to construct for themselves a path through the remarkably diverse yet unified rhetorical and socio-political concerns she traced throughout her career.


A bibliography of the work of Alison Thorne

1. Alison Thorne, ‘Problems of Perspective in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida’, PhD, UCL (1989)

2. Alison Thorne, ‘“To write and read / Be henceforth treacherous”: Cymbeline and the problem of interpretation’, Shakespeare’s Late Plays: New Readings, ed. Jennifer Richards and James Knowles (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), pp. 176-191.

3. Alison Thorne, Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare: Looking Through Language (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000).

4. Alison Thorne, ‘“Awake remembrance of these valiant dead”: Henry V and the politics of the English history play’, Shakespeare Studies, vol. 30 (2002), pp. 156-181.

5. Alison Thorne (ed.), Shakespeare’s Romances, New Casebooks Series (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

6. Alison Thorne, ‘“There is a history in all men’s lives”: reinventing history in 2 Henry IV’, Shakespeare’s Histories and Counter-Histories, ed. Dermot Cavanagh, Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Stephen Longstaffe (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), pp. 49-66.

7. Alison Thorne, ‘Women’s petitionary letters and early seventeenth-century treason trials’, Women’s Writing, vol. 13, issue 1 (March 2006), pp. 23-43.

8. Jennifer Richards and Alison Thorne (eds.), Rhetoric, Women and Politics in Early Modern England (London and New York: Routledge, 2007).

9. Alison Thorne and Susan Wiseman (eds.), Renaissance Studies, vol. 22, issue 3 (June 2008), Special Issue: The Rhetoric of Complaint: Ovid’s Heroides in the Renaissance and Restoration.

10. Alison Thorne, ‘“Large complaints in little papers”: negotiating Ovidian genealogies of complaint in Drayton’s England’s Heroicall Epistles’, Renaissance Studies, vol. 22, issue 3 (June 2008), pp. 368-384.

11. Alison Thorne, ‘“O, lawful let it be/ That I have room … to curse awhile”: voicing the nation’s conscience in female complaint in Richard III, King John and Henry VIII’, This England, That Shakespeare: New Angles on Englishness and the Bard, ed. Willy Maley and Margaret Tudeau-Clayton (Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), pp. 105-124.

12. Alison Thorne, ‘Female captivity and the rhetoric of supplication: the cases of Lady Mary Grey and Lady Arbella Stuart’, Lives and Letters, vol. 4, no. 1 (Autumn 2012), pp. 152-171.

13. Alison Thorne, ‘Narratives of female suffering in petitionary literature of the Civil War period and its aftermath’, Literature Compass, vol. 10, issue 2 (February 2013), pp. 134-145.

14. Alison Thorne, ‘The politics of female supplication in the Book of Esther’, Biblical Women in Early Modern Literary Culture, ed. Victoria Brownlee and Laura Gallagher (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), pp. 95-110.

‘He is a better scholar than I thought he was’: debating the achievements of the Elizabethan grammar schools

‘He is a better scholar than I thought he was’: debating the achievements of the Elizabethan grammar schools

Helen Hackett

[1] For many decades now literary scholars have assumed that the great flowering of literature that took place in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries had its roots in a humanist educational revolution. This revolution, such scholars have surmised, made a knowledge of classical literature and a training in classical languages and rhetoric newly available to boys from a relatively wide social spectrum via the establishment of many new grammar schools in towns across the realm. Many grammar-school boys, such as Christopher Marlowe, George Peele, and Edmund Spenser, proceeded to university, where they received yet more instruction in this body of humanist literary knowledge and linguistic skills; but some did not, including Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd, and, famously, William Shakespeare, implying that an Elizabethan grammar-school education alone was sufficient to set a talented boy on the path to literary greatness (see Appendix). Yet some historians of this period of education have found the schooling offered in these institutions to be authoritarian, supportive of existing hierarchies rather than social mobility, and repressive of creativity. This article will explore how we might make sense of the disparity between the literary-critical and social-historical views of the Elizabethan grammar schools, and how this might help us to understand the foundations of the writing careers of authors born and educated in the Elizabethan period.

[2] After a grounding in basic literacy at petty school, boys entered the grammar school in the ‘lower school’, where between the ages of seven and twelve they principally learned Latin grammar. This was supported from the second form onwards by the use of examples from Latin authors and exercises in dialogue. From the third form to the fifth form pupils practised imitation of such models as Cicero, Terence, and Ovid, and began to progress into composition; in support of this they kept commonplace books recording potentially useful passages from their reading. Then in the ‘upper school’, taking them up to the age of sixteen, students were trained in rhetoric and logic and continued their study of Latin literature, adding in authors such as Virgil and Horace. It was a curriculum indebted to Quintilian and Erasmus which foregrounded the rhetorical skills of inventio (identifying arguments and evidence), dispositio (organising those materials), elocutio (embellishing arguments with tropes and figures), memoria (the skill of memorising a speech), and pronuntiatio (oral delivery) (Vickers 1989: 28, 62-7). Some time was also given to other subjects such as Greek and mathematics. There were variations between schools, but this was the broad outline of the Elizabethan syllabus (Kempe 1588: 226-37; Mack 2002: 9, 11-47; Rhodes 2004: locs 648-69, 705; Dolven 2007: 21-5).

[3] Biographies of early modern authors almost routinely trace the origins of their mature art back to their grammar-school education. Ian Donaldson, for instance, in his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Jonson, finds the roots of his subject’s later career at Westminster School – refounded by Elizabeth I in 1560 – under the renowned master William Camden:

Jonson benefited deeply from the school’s traditions of rhetorical and classical training, and, in particular, from the exercise of rendering Greek and Latin verse and prose into their equivalent English forms. Camden, who had a good knowledge of earlier English poetry, seems also to have encouraged his boys to write verses of their own in English.

Camden was one of a number of Elizabethan teachers who included drama in their curriculum, with obvious benefits for a future playwright:

Through the Latin play, a regular event in the life of Westminster School, Jonson had early experience in a medium he was eventually to make his own. He was to retain a special fondness for the comedies of Plautus and Terence which were commonly performed on these occasions, and for the school’s traditions of dramatic performance. (Donaldson: 2004)

Jonson presents a particularly striking case of the potential outcome of a grammar-school education because in later life he was justly celebrated for his impressive classical learning, despite not having proceeded to university.

[4] His friend and rival Shakespeare also went no further than grammar school in his education. The King’s New School in Stratford-upon-Avon had medieval origins, but was re-founded by King Edward VI in 1553 (‘History of the School’ 2011). There is no documentary record of Shakespeare’s attendance there, but his biographers agree that he must have been one of its pupils (e.g. Holland 2004; Potter 2012: 21-39). Jonson was somewhat patronising, in his prefatory poem for the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, about his fellow author’s ‘small Latin and less Greek’ (Shakespeare 2016: A28), no doubt because of his pride in his own erudition. However in a detailed study of 1944 that quoted Jonson in its title (William Shakspere’s Small Latine and Less Greeke) T. W. Baldwin gave a thorough account of the rigour and richness of the school curriculum that Shakespeare would have followed. Building on this, many scholars have traced the foundations of Shakespeare’s art in his education. Lois Potter, for instance, in her biography of Shakespeare made a similar point to Donaldson’s about Jonson, observing that ‘the heavily classical education’ imparted at grammar school was ‘an almost ideal training’ for a writer, and especially for a dramatist, because of the prominence of the Latin playwrights Terence and Plautus in the early stages of the grammar-school curriculum, and because of the use of various kinds of performance in pedagogic practice (2012: 31-2, 33-5; see also Rhodes 2004: locs 315-45).

[5] Such biographical observations find an obvious and direct relationship between the training in languages, rhetoric, literature, and performance that Shakespeare and his contemporaries received at school and their later proficiency as poets and playwrights. Meanwhile other critics have developed more complex hypotheses about the cause-and-effect relationship between the Elizabethan grammar-school syllabus and the literary achievements of the period. Joel B. Altman’s 1978 book The Tudor Play of Mind, for instance, emphasised the prominence in schoolroom rhetorical training of exercises in disputation and debate, developing the ability to argue either or both sides of a case, in utramque partem. This, Altman argued, could account for the extraordinarily multivocal and interrogative qualities of Renaissance drama:

the plays are essentially questions and not statements at all […] the plays functioned as media of intellectual and emotional exploration for minds that were accustomed to examine the many sides of a given theme, to entertain opposing ideals, and by so exercising the understanding, to move toward some fuller apprehension of truth that could be ascertained only through the total action of the drama. (6; see also Rhodes 2004: locs 1057-1446)

Jonathan Bate then pointed to Shakespeare’s introduction to Ovid at grammar school as a formative moment which established a lifelong affinity, building on Baldwin’s identification of ‘something of [Shakespeare’s] inmost self which he found in Ovid’s inmost self’ (1944: II: 673). For Bate, imitating Ovid taught Shakespeare how to simulate full human personality in language:

The Ovidian and the Shakespearian self is always in motion, always in pursuit or flight […] The Ovidian dramatic monologue and the Shakespearian soliloquy create the illusion that a fictional being has an interior life. This illusion is achieved principally by the arts of language. The character’s ‘self’ is both created and transformed by the very process of verbal articulation; her or his ‘being’ is invented rhetorically. (Bate 1993: locs 114-17, 136)

A few years later Alison Thorne, in Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare (2000), a book full of illuminating insights and in many ways ahead of its time, explored the intersections in Shakespeare’s works between rhetoric and Renaissance theories of representation in the visual arts. She found that rhetorical theory provided ‘a common denominator between poetry and painting,’ and ‘proposed a model of persuasive discourse in which language could be understood to operate as if it were a mode of perception’ (xiv). She understood Shakespeare’s knowledge of rhetoric as grounded in ‘the indelible traces’ of the ‘humanistic educational system’, especially the influence of Erasmus’s grammar-school textbook De Copia (9, and see 21, 59). In short, it was his education that gave him the tools to create what Thorne calls, in a wonderfully succinct and expressive phrase, ‘the referential density of Shakespeare’s fictive worlds’ (102).

[6] Neil Rhodes, in his brilliant study of Shakespeare and the Origins of English (2004), took a similar view that ‘We will obviously never know how Shakespeare’s mind worked, but we can still reconstruct the ways in which his mind may have been trained to work’ (loc 1225). He traced back to the Elizabethan grammar-school curriculum Shakespeare’s abilities to recreate spoken language in writing, to write original works based on a training in imitation, to problematise issues, to develop English as a literary language, and to draw on the knowledge-management and retrieval skills encouraged by the keeping of commonplace books. Raphael Lyne in Shakespeare, Rhetoric and Cognition (2011) then contended that Shakespeare’s rhetorical training enabled him to represent the thought-processes of his characters – especially the difficulty of putting emotions, experiences, and mental processes into words – in ways which resonate fascinatingly with modern theories of cognition; while Lorna Hutson has recently proposed that Shakespeare’s ability to imply realistic lives, worlds, and personalities for his characters beyond the text depended on his deployment of the rhetorical ‘places’ or ‘circumstances’ which formed an important part of ‘elementary grammar school exercises’:

[I]f we consider time, place, and causa (motive or purpose) as three of the most important rhetorical topics of circumstance, we can begin to see that it is Shakespeare’s innovative concern with the probable invention of arguments on these topics that has enabled generations of readers to infer from them the subjective experience and psychological depth to which we have given the name of ‘character’. (2015: 58, 43-4)

[7] Thus a number of intellectually powerful and sophisticated efforts to identify and analyze what makes Shakespeare’s writing exceptional, and why the English Renaissance produced such an exceptional generation of writers, have found answers in the knowledge and skills imparted by the Elizabethan grammar schools. Yet if we look back over histories of education written over the same period of scholarship, we find a surprisingly different story. Rosemary O’Day, writing in 1982, found that ‘after an opening up of educational facilities to a broad section of the community in the 1560s, there was a certain closing up of educational opportunity thereafter’ (35). She continued:

the improvement in educational provision was the intensification of an existing trend rather than a dramatic development which emerged ‘out of the blue’ with the Renaissance. There was a rise in the number of schools in the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods but this rise was not sudden, nor was it entirely due to the impact of Renaissance conviction that gentlemen must be properly educated to serve the state. (42)

She emphasised that rote-learning such as the use of catechisms ‘was part of the fabric of the learning process in medieval and early modern England: it was common at every level, ABC School, grammar school, university; it placed a premium on memorising accepted thought and frowned upon free thinking’ (44). Classrooms were cramped and crowded, and compliance was frequently enforced by beating (59, 49). Children were sent to school primarily to learn ‘to become a good Christian and a good citizen’, and the gentry and professional classes ‘increasingly saw education as the way to confirm rather than to modify the ramifications of the hierarchical social structure’ (50, 64). Education, O’Day asserted, was regarded as a tool to inculcate loyalty to the state and to new religious doctrines, and to create useful members of society. Hence ‘“Creativity”, individual development, free expression were concepts unknown to the Tudor and Stuart educator’ (75).

[8] This sounds far less promising – even the opposite of beneficial – as a training ground for future authors from humble backgrounds. A similarly negative view was taken by Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine in their polemical book From Humanism to the Humanities (1986). They accepted that ‘between 1450 and 1650 there was a vast growth in the numbers of those involved in education at every level from the barely literate to the professional scholar’, and that this constituted an ‘Educational Revolution’ (xi). However they argued that humanism, after its early idealism and intellectual innovation, became debased by classroom practice into ‘a curriculum training a social elite to fulfil its predetermined social role’, ‘an ideology of routine, order and above all “method”’ (xvi, 123). The ‘promise held out to parents and prospective patrons’ was that children would be instructed in virtuous – that is, obedient – conduct as much as grammar (143). Humanist education came to serve a new Europe

with its closed governing élites, hereditary offices and strenuous efforts to close off debate on vital political and social questions […] it offered everyone a model of true culture as something given, absolute, to be mastered, not questioned – and thus fostered in all its initiates a properly docile attitude towards authority (xiv).

The historical narratives offered by O’Day and Grafton and Jardine pose serious challenges to the idea that grammar-school education was the foundation of the bold creative innovations of Shakespeare, Jonson, and their contemporaries, and have been supported by other historians of education. Michael Van Cleave Alexander questioned the novelty of humanist educational developments in the Elizabethan period: ‘what seemed to have been an “educational revolution” after 1558 was in fact the culmination of an evolutionary process already more than two centuries old’ (1990: ix); while Helen M. Jewell summarised that ‘[a]n educational revolution, located between 1560 and 1640, has been challenged as only intermittent, and largely confined to higher education. Certainly this period was not one of steady overall progress in terms of scholarship or even of basic literacy’ (1998: 6).

[9] How are we to account for this gulf between different academic discourses? One clue lies in that phrase ‘educational revolution’ which we find repeated by Grafton and Jardine (1986: xi), Alexander (1990: ix), and Jewell (1998: 6). This derives from a seminal article of 1964 by Lawrence Stone, ‘The Educational Revolution in England, 1560-1640’, which compiled some statistical and documentary evidence for educational developments in England over the specified period. In fact the article mainly attends to higher education rather than grammar schools, and gives a fairly nuanced if brief account of changes at school level. Nevertheless its title makes a polemical claim, and Stone does contend that a ‘proliferation of little private schools means that the growth of secondary education at this period was far greater – perhaps twice as great – as the increase of places at endowed grammar schools would suggest’ (47). He also draws exuberant conclusions that, because of advances in education, early modern England ‘boiled and bubbled with new ideas as no other country in Europe’, with ‘widespread public participation in significant intellectual debate on every front’ (80). As a whole, the article seems to have operated as a provocation to some other historians who sought to re-evaluate or contest its claims.

[10] A significant factor in the movement against Stone’s ‘educational revolution’ may have been the topical political context of the 1976 Education Act which swept away the national system of selective state grammar schools set up in 1944 (except for a few survivals in a few local pockets). O’Day cautioned responsibly that ‘It is all too easy to look at the Tudor-Stuart educational scene and equate the ABC and Petty schools with the primary schools of today, and the grammar schools with the present-day secondary schools. Such was not the case’ (1982: 26). Nevertheless negative accounts of Elizabethan education by O’Day and others may well have been inflected by their own context, when institutions bearing the name ‘grammar school’ – and not entirely unlike their sixteenth-century predecessors in their associations with training in ‘traditional’ subjects such as Latin, with academic elitism, and with preparation for university – had come to be seen as outmoded and socially divisive, and had mostly been abolished within the state education system. (Meanwhile some pre-1944 schools with ‘grammar’ in their name, such as Manchester Grammar School, which had come into the state system as part-funded ‘direct grant’ schools, now left it again and reverted to independent status.) When Stone published his article in 1964 free state grammar schools were still seen as vehicles for widening access to academic training and creating an upwardly mobile meritocracy, but by the 1980s and ’90s this project had been largely abandoned.

[11] A helpful middle way through the debate about the impact and value of the Elizabethan grammar schools is offered by the most thorough statistical investigation to date of early modern literacy, David Cressy’s Literacy and the Social Order (1980). Cressy found that the spread of literacy remained limited through the early modern period, and that Stone had over-simplified in asserting consistent educational progress over the period 1560-1640. He offered much more detail on forward and backward movements in particular decades, regions, and occupational groups. Nevertheless, he concluded that ‘Every indicator confirms the period from 1560 to 1580 as one of educational revolution’ and connected this with the ‘proliferation’ of grammar schools. Although after 1580 there was an ‘educational recession’, prior to this ‘the bulk of the evidence, strengthened by the literacy figures, points to the first two decades of Elizabeth’s reign as a period of unusual educational excitement and achievement’. Cressy notes that these were the decades when Shakespeare, his literary contemporaries, and much of their audience and readership were educated (168-9). Adding more precision to Stone’s account, then, need not disrupt the hypothesis that the late Elizabethan literary revolution was grounded in an early Elizabethan educational revolution.

[12] It is also helpful to break down the critique of Elizabethan grammar schools into its constituent points and consider them one by one. Four main objections to the concept of an educational revolution have been mounted: first, that the Elizabethan grammar schools were not an entirely new phenomenon, but rather a continuation of developments begun in the Middle Ages; secondly, that they did little to foster social mobility; thirdly, that they relied heavily on rote-learning and corporal punishment as teaching methods; and finally, that they inculcated conformity and conventional thinking rather than creativity and intellectual innovation. Let us consider each of these in turn.

[13] On the first point: it is true that some of the leading schools in England were founded before the reign of Elizabeth. Winchester College, for instance, was set up in the late fourteenth century; Eton College in 1440; St Paul’s School, London, in 1509; and Manchester Grammar School in 1515. A number of schools were also founded or refounded during the reign of Elizabeth’s brother Edward VI, often replacing establishments connected to monasteries or chantries; many such schools still bear his name, as in Birmingham, Chelmsford, and Stratford-upon-Avon. Yet statistical evidence does suggest that, even if some grammar schools were up and running before the Elizabethan period, there was unprecedented expansion at this time. Joan Simon noted that numerous schools were founded or refounded in the 1560s, both in London and across the regions, including Westminster (1560), Hoddesdon (1560), Merchant Taylors’ (1561), Friar’s School, Bangor (1561), Tonbridge (1564), Penrith (1564), Darlington (1567), and many more (1977: 302-16). Corroborating this sense of a recognisable movement, Alexander records that during the Elizabethan period more than £250,000 was contributed to school endowments and 130 new schools were founded, giving a national total of 360 grammar schools by 1603 (1990: 185). Moreover the Elizabethans clearly regarded themselves as living through an educational revolution. In the ‘Description of Britaine’ that he contributed to the 1577 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, William Harrison stated that:

there are great number of Grammer scholes thorowe out the Realme, and those very lyberally indued, for the better reliefe of poore schollers, so that there are not many corporate townes now vnder the Queenes dominion, that hath not one Gramerschoole at the least, with a sufficient liuing for a Mayster and Vsher, appointed to the same. (80)

We should also take note of the observations of Richard Mulcaster, headmaster of the Merchant Taylors’ School from 1561 to 1586, and high-master of St Paul’s from 1596 to 1608 (Barker 2004). Mulcaster taught Thomas Kyd, Thomas Lodge, and Edmund Spenser at Merchant Taylors’, and has been described as ‘the most undervalued contributor to the English literary renaissance’ (Rhodes 2004: loc 1549). In his 1581 educational manual Positions he noted that ‘during the time of her Maiesties most fortunate raigne already, there hath bene mo schooles erected, then all the rest be, that were before her time in the whole Realme’ (229).

[14] On the second question, whether the grammar schools advanced social mobility, the examples of pupils who went on to successful literary careers present suggestive evidence. The Appendix below compiles information from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography concerning the educational histories of the most well-known authors born and/or educated during the reign of Elizabeth. This sample is obviously limited and specialised, but does suggest social range in the grammar-school intake, extending from members of the higher gentry or lower aristocracy like Philip Sidney and Fulke Greville (pupils together at Shrewsbury School) to poor scholars like Lodge, Marlowe, and Spenser. It is particularly notable how many writers attended grammar school from origins in the artisan and tradesman classes: not only the glover’s son Shakespeare and the bricklayer’s stepson Johnson, but also Kyd, son of a scrivener; Robert Greene, son of a saddler, cordwainer, or innkeeper; Lodge, son of a grocer; Marlowe, of a shoemaker; and so on. These were not the destitute poor, nor did careers as authors necessarily confer social respectability or wealth, but evidence from this occupational cohort suggests that the aspirant artisan classes were keen to send their sons to grammar school and saw advantages in doing so.

[15] There is substantial evidence that, once at school, these gifted pupils and their classmates would have been subjected to extensive rote-learning. The school day was long, starting at 6 or 7am and ending at 5 or 6pm, with a mid-day break for dinner, and shorter breaks at 9am and 3pm. Alexander observes that ‘it was not at all unusual for teachers and pupils to spend ten hours a day at school, six days a week’. Schools varied in size: many took around 50 to 80 boys, but some had as many as 350 pupils. They were usually all housed in one large room, seated on rows of benches or ‘forms’ arranged in order of age-group. The master might be assisted by one or more ushers, who would work particularly with the younger forms. These were self-evidently difficult teaching conditions, with each teacher typically having responsibility for between 50 and 70 pupils (Dolven 2007: 19; Alexander 1990: 198-9). Mass drilling rather than individual tuition must inevitably have been the norm, reinforced by injunctions from the government to use prescribed standard text-books such as Alexander Nowell’s Catechism and William Lily’s Latin Grammar.

[16] There is also extensive evidence that corporal punishment was used to inculcate diligent study and good behaviour. Thomas Tusser recalled being flogged at Eton in the 1530s by the headmaster Nicholas Udall:

From Powels I went, to Aeton sent,
To learne straight wayes, the Latine phrayes,
Where fyfty three, strippes geuen to me,
___at once I had:
For fawt but small, or none at all,
yt cam to pas, thus beat I was,
Se Wdall se, the mercy of the
___to me poore lad. (Tusser 1573: 90r)

Mulcaster wrote that ‘the rod may no more be spared in schooles, then the sworde may in the Princes hand’, explicitly connecting discipline in school with the maintenance of order and authority in the state (1581: 277); and Edmund Coote, master of King Edward VI Free School in Bury St Edmunds, included the following verses in his text-book The English schoole-maister (1596):

My child and scholer, take good heed,
___vnto the words which here are set:
And see you do accordingly,
___or els be sure you shall be beat. (63-4; O’Day 1982: 49)

[17] It is difficult to determine how frequently the rod was actually administered, or merely invoked as a threat, as in Coote’s verses. Practice may have varied between schools and between masters, and some may have used the rod only as a disciplinary method of last resort. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, in a scene considered in more detail below, the parson-schoolmaster Evans threatens his pupil William with beating – ‘if you forget your quis, your ques, and your quods, you must be preeches’ – but does not administer it, and indeed immediately afterwards tells William rather affectionately and indulgently, ‘Go your ways and play, go’ (IV. 1. 68-10). William Kempe, master of Plymouth Grammar School and author of The education of children in learning (1588), maintained like Mulcaster that ‘the discipline and vertuous bringing vp of children in good learning is the very foundation and groundworke of all good in euery estate aswell priuate as publike’, and that ‘the vnthriftie […] and those that do amisse’ should be ‘reformed and corrected’. However the rod was only to be inflicted if all other methods had failed: an offender should first be ‘admonished, then rebuked: herein the cause shall be throughly sifted, paciently heard, by equitie iudged, and last of all soundly reproued, that the conscience of the offender may be touched for the fault’. Even if the offender remained untouched in conscience and persisted, punishment might take an alternative form to beating, such as ‘restraining […] libertie of recreation’, or ‘seruice of drudgerie’ such as ‘the sweeping of the Schoole’ (1988: A2r, H2r).

[18] Moreover, although discipline may have been necessary to maintain order in overcrowded classrooms, and may have been understood as producing useful citizens, this need not mean that the objectives of teachers were limited to producing docile conformists and suppressing independent thought. Mulcaster emphasises that in the pursuit of truth it is insufficient merely to accumulate quotations and examples from existing authorities, offering ‘a catalogue of names, and a multitude of sentences’ to make up for ‘want of sound iudgement’. Instead:

I wil reste vpon reason the best, where I finde it, the next where that failes, and coniecture is probable, to proue such thinges, as reason must paterne. If the triall be in proofe, and experience must guide it, I will binde vpon proofe, and let triall be the tuche. For with the alledging of authours, either to shew, what I haue read or to tuche common concordes, where any thing is to much, and nothing is enough, I meane not at all to buisie my selfe. (1581: 13)

Reason, probable conjecture, experience, and proof by trial: these are all forms of active, autonomous, and empirical thought, not mere memorisation, repetition, and deference to authority. Similarly when Kempe sets out his recommended curriculum year by year he emphasises that the pupil must move from translation and imitation to original composition. In Shakespeare and the Origins of English Rhodes asked the pertinent question, ‘Did Shakespeare study creative writing?’. His answer, based on a detailed study of the grammar-school syllabus, was that ‘literary study was directed towards creative practice’, and that imitation was understood not as slavish copying, but as ‘transformation […] assimilation and re-creation’ (2004: locs 695, 758). Kempe bears this out: in the upper forms, he asserts, the pupil should be able to ‘assay otherwhiles, without an example of imitation, what he can do alone by his owne skill’. The objective of the curriculum is that the pupil ‘before the full age of sixteene yeeres be made fit to wade without a schoolemaister, through deeper mysteries of learning’ (1588: H1r). Kempe understands his mission as training his pupils to exceed him, to go beyond the limits of their schoolroom lessons in their speaking and writing skills and in their autonomous pursuit of knowledge.

[19] Kempe also chides ‘parents in these daies’ who have ‘more care to prouide wealth for their children, than wisedome’ (1588: A2r). In a section headed ‘The Vtilitie of Schooling’ he offers a satirical picture of a father who ‘will rubbe his forehead’ and ask why parents should ‘spend their goodes and possessions about that which cannot feede the belly, nor clothe the backe, nor yet helpe a man in time of aduersitie’. Kempe’s answer is that

If Dauid, Salomon, Paule, or any other of these good men should answer thee, he would say that the riches, which thou bestowest to get learning, is but drosse and dung, in comparison of the pure gold and precious pearle that is attayned by learning, and so would decipher the singuler vse and fruites of learning, with such forcible and sound reasons, with such gracious and heauenly eloquence, that it would passe the skill of any man now aliue to expresse it. (1588: D4r)

For Kempe, then, the role of education was not to procure social and financial advantage for his students, but to lead them to intellectual and spiritual benefits. As a key part of this, like Mulcaster, he understood his pedagogy as directed towards enabling his pupils to think independently and originally.

[20] We may wonder how representative Mulcaster and Kempe were. O’Day rightly points out that there were ‘a multiplicity of types of school, each the product of differing traditions as well as of the interplay between these traditions and specific circumstances’ (1982: 40). Yet in omitting from her account of Elizabethan education any mention of the prolific literary activity and remarkable literary achievements of the period she surely leaves a huge gap and produces a distorted picture. The gulf between the versions of an Elizabethan grammar-school education offered by historians of education and by literary critics clearly arises from the fact that they have been asking different questions. O’Day and her colleagues were asking: ‘Was there an educational revolution in the Elizabethan period?’, and were inclined to answer ‘No’, or ‘Only within limits’. Literary critics, by contrast, have agreed that there was a literary revolution in the Elizabethan period, which has led them to ask: ‘How did this extraordinary explosion of original writing come about?’, and, in particular, ‘How did Shakespeare come to write as he did?’, finding answers in his exposure to rhetorical training and classical literature at school. Moreover in investigation of these questions, literary critics have tended to focus on the content of the Elizabethan curriculum, whereas educational historians have concentrated on the methods of delivery, which often present to the modern reader a somewhat dismaying picture.

[21] In spite of the evidence from Mulcaster and Kempe that some schoolmasters did see the encouragement of forms of original thinking as an important part of their mission, we may need to acknowledge that some aspects of Elizabethan classroom practice which are anathema to modern progressive sensibilities were nevertheless effective as a means of imparting knowledge and skills. In particular, learning conditions which may seem to us repressive nevertheless manifestly produced later intellectual benefits for Elizabethan authors. Latin grammar and classical rhetoric were thoroughly learned; classical literature was thoroughly absorbed; all of these tools and materials became resources on which adult authors could draw, and a cultural language which they shared for the purposes of allusion, parody, recognition of rhetorical tropes, and so on. In fact there is nothing revelatory about the observation that discipline is effective in instilling knowledge and skills, even if we might object on other grounds to forms of discipline such as corporal punishment. Nor is there anything surprising in the recognition that repetitive, tedious, even apparently mindless tasks can hone skills in such a way as to support brilliant performance; we might think of musicians practising their scales. Many present-day academics may instinctively share the assumptions of historians such as O’Day, Grafton, and Jardine that rote-learning, routine, and method tend to stifle creativity and individual development, yet at the same time anecdotal evidence from our own experiences and the observed experiences of others may suggest that this is not necessarily so.

[22] Lynn Enterline in Shakespeare’s Schoolroom (2012) offers a further intriguing but also troubling thought: that forms of psychological damage inflicted at grammar school prepared some Elizabethan boys to go on to great writing careers. She suggests that even those parts of the Elizabethan curriculum that we might see as most enlightened and most related to creativity, namely drama and other kinds of performance, trained boys to adopt set forms of speech and gesture, and thereby distanced the boys from themselves:

the cumulative effect of grammar school instruction in socially sanctioned language, expression, and bodily movement was to establish in students a significant detour between event and feeling, orator and the passions he imitated for the sake of persuading and pleasing others. Indeed, school training engrained what I have come to call ‘habits of alterity’ at the heart of schoolboy ‘identity’. (7-8)

She goes on:

One of the stranger aspects of grammar school practice is that the humanist effort to discipline language and affect produced rhetorically skilled subjects whose technical proficiency in evoking assigned passions, from themselves and from an audience, meant that a boy’s connection to his own feelings might become tenuous at best […] From the perspective of the school, scholars achieved their place in their social world by being drilled in the art of feeling and conveying passions that came from somewhere else and someone else. From a psychoanalytic perspective, early modern schoolboys were trained in techniques that distanced them from their own experience in both language and time. (29)

Enterline suggests that such internal self-division was a form of psychological harm but at the same time an essential skill for future actors and creators of fictions, creating the ability to occupy and move between multiple viewpoints and subject positions.

[23] In taking further the perception that the relation between schoolroom experience and later creativity was a complex one, we might also consider Elizabethan authors as making use of the linguistic skills and literary knowledge offered by the grammar-school curriculum while reacting against its authoritarian methodologies. Rebecca W. Bushnell, in a subtle account of the ‘culture of teaching’ in sixteenth-century England, finds that what we broadly designate ‘humanism’ was never a consistent ideology and had inherent contradictions (1996: 19). In particular, corporal punishment, whether actual or threatened, was not necessarily successful in instilling obedience, and might rather have provoked defiance and nascent political awareness: ‘At the core of arguments about flogging we […] find the early modern discourse of political authority, monarchy, tyranny and resistance, with the schoolroom a highly charged site for defining and acting out different poses of authority and resistance’ (34). She goes on to discuss the ‘struggle for sovereignty’ between master and pupil, concluding that ‘humanist education, in its formative stages in sixteenth-century England, could generate authoritarianism and resistance simultaneously’ (67, 74). Jeff Dolven develops a related model of the questioning and critical pupil in his 2007 book Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance, arguing that from the 1560s onwards there was a rising tide of dissatisfaction with humanist pedagogy, not least because its students had ‘time to age into disillusionment’. This leads him to propose that in works such as Euphues, the Arcadias, and The Faerie Queene ‘the very possibility of literary didacticism’ is ‘emptied out: their writers lose faith in the idea that literature can teach, because they cannot free their books – their teaching books – from a culture of teaching that they take to be compromised, even bankrupt’ (8, 10-11).

[24] If we look not at Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric or classical allusion, but at his direct representations of schoolmasters and schoolboys, the impression we form is of a pupil who was less than enthusiastic and not particularly compliant. Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost is hardly an inspiring figure; while in As You Like It we have the famous description of

___the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. (II. 7. 145-7)

Particularly striking in relation to the issues considered here is the scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor between the Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans, and the Pages’ young son William. It is hard to resist speculation that in giving this schoolboy his own name, Shakespeare was at least partly looking back to his own childhood. Evans takes William through some Latin exercises, including double translation, in which the pupil translates from Latin into English and then back into Latin:

EVANS What is lapis, William?
WILLIAM A stone.
EVANS And what is a stone, William?
WILLIAM A pebble.
EVANS No, it is lapis; I pray you remember in your prain. (IV. 1. 26-31)

This dialogue is on one level a simple joke but can also be read in more complex ways. Does William reply ‘pebble’ out of stupidity, or out of cleverness? He might have misunderstood the nature of the exercise, thinking that Evans wants him to demonstrate facility in copia, the exercise taught from Erasmus’s text-book, De Copia, of varying expression and saying a thing in as many different ways as possible (Mack 2002: 31-2; Rhodes 2004: locs 706-12). Alternatively, it may be that his mind spontaneously flits sideways to think laterally; or it may be that he is deliberately and subversively mocking Evans. It is by no means clear which of them has the upper hand.

[25] The master then takes William through the declension of the demonstrative pronoun hic, and they reach the genitive plural, which William dutifully recites as ‘horum, harum, horum’ (IV. 1. 53). Mistress Quickly, thinking that William is calling someone named Jenny a whore, scolds Evans: ‘You do ill to teach the child such words’ (IV. 1. 57). The joke is of course about her characteristic slow-wittedness and propensity to find double-entendres where none are intended; but it is also about how the humanist education being bestowed upon the sons of the middling sort is equipping them with forms of knowledge unfamiliar to the older generation, taking them into new intellectual and social territory and giving them forms of mastery over their elders and ‘betters’. At the end of the scene William’s mother says, slightly anxiously perhaps, ‘He is a better scholar than I thought he was’ (IV. 1. 71). This overtaking of the older generation by the young might include not only parents and their friends, but also the schoolmaster himself. Throughout this scene Evans does not seem significantly more learned or intelligent than his young charge, and there is good reason to think that as William grows up he will become the more intellectually advanced of the two. Even when William forgets or mistakes his answers, these diversions seem like implicit comments on the tedium and restriction of the whole catechetical exercise. William can march through his Latin grammar successfully when he puts his mind to it, but much of the time his mind is wandering elsewhere, presumably to more interesting territory, such as when he will be released to play.

[26] The scene between Evans and William readily conforms to Dolven’s model of Elizabethan writers looking back on their educational experiences in a spirit of disillusionment and cynicism. Yet at the same time what happened to them at school, or rather how they interacted with the forms of instruction that they encountered at school, was clearly a formative experience for them as authors. Rhodes offers helpful insight into the complex relationship between what was taught and what was learned, what was offered or inflicted by schoolmasters and what was taken away by pupils: ‘Essentially, what Shakespeare was taught was a process. What he learned was that the process could be absorbed while abandoning most of the rules associated with it’. He concludes that ‘Shakespeare, along with the entire Elizabethan literary renaissance, to which he is central, was the product of a creative abuse of the Tudor education system’ (2004: locs 846, 1053, and see 1435).

[27] In a different context, Stephen Greenblatt has sought to locate one of the origins of the Renaissance in a single event which he calls a ‘swerve’, or, borrowing a term from Lucretius, a clinamen, which Greenblatt defines as ‘an unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter […], an unforeseen deviation from the direct trajectory’ (2011: 7). Greenblatt’s swerve is the rediscovery in 1417 by the book-collector Poggio Bracciolini of a manuscript of Lucretius’s De rerum natura (Of the Nature of Things) in a German monastery, ultimately eventuating in the dissemination of Lucretius’s ideas across Renaissance Europe. Greenblatt describes Bracciolini’s extraction of the manuscript from the shelf as a ‘key moment’ which was ‘muffled and almost invisible, tucked away behind walls in a remote place. There were no heroic gestures, no observers keenly recording the great event for posterity, no signs in heaven or on earth that everything had changed forever’ (12). As Willy Maley has observed, this concept of a swerve has much in common with the well-known idea from chaos theory that the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can set off a chain of events which has epic consequences many continents away (2011). Whether this particular moment was indeed, as Greenblatt claims, a swerve which ended the Middle Ages, initiated the Renaissance, and explains ‘How the World Became Modern’ (the subtitle of the US edition of the book) has been vigorously debated (e.g. Burrow 2011, Hinch 2012, Monfasani 2012). Nevertheless it might be helpful to appropriate and adapt Greenblatt’s model of the unseen and local origins of historical change in order to imagine numerous ‘swerves’ up and down Elizabethan England, in various cities and provincial towns, as individual grammar-school boys who would go on to be notable writers not only imbibed instruction from their school-masters, but also resisted their authority and strayed in unregulated and ungovernable mental directions.

[28] It is a commonplace of early modern studies to observe that a spread of literacy motivated by the pious goals of improving direct access to Scripture eventuated in a growing reading public for all kinds of secular literature, some of it far from pious. Similarly with grammar-school education, even if the professed intention was often the training up of dutiful citizens, the skills and knowledge conferred did not necessarily have this outcome – indeed in some cases manifestly had unintended and unexpected consequences. To mention only a couple of the most obvious examples: Marlowe’s schoolmasters can hardly have anticipated that he would write Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus; Shakespeare’s schoolmasters can hardly have understood themselves as preparing him to write Hamlet and King Lear. Here is a means of reconciling the high claims made for Elizabethan grammar-school education by literary critics with the more limited and critical accounts of it given by educational historians: incipient writers at once learned valuable skills for their trade at school, and exceeded or even resisted or rejected lessons learned at school. We might return to a telling phrase from William Kempe: he understood his mission as a schoolmaster as making his pupils ‘fit to wade without a schoolemaister, through deeper mysteries of learning’ (1588: H1r). In this many schoolmasters of the period evidently succeeded. The sheer number of Elizabethan authors who attended grammar schools points to a connection between a grammar-school education and later literary achievement, but this connection must have been complicated, not necessarily a smooth transition from skills and training enthusiastically imbibed at school to later literary success. Forms of psychological damage inflicted at school might have been paradoxically productive of great writing; and the repressive and tedious aspects of Elizabethan pedagogy might have created habits of resistance and ‘swerving’ that were also conducive to later literary originality. Thinking about just what it was that happened in the Elizabethan classroom, and the various processes by which this might have been connected to the later literary achievements of former grammar-school pupils, highlights the extreme complexity of the relations between education and creativity in general, a continuing issue for us today.

University College London


Educational backgrounds of leading authors born and/or educated during the reign of Elizabeth I

All information from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [ODNB] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004-16),
<http://www.oxforddnb.com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/> [accessed 5 April 2016].

a. Authors educated at grammar schools who did not proceed to university or the Inns of Court

Thomas Dekker, b. c.1572: no record of parents; no record of education, but ‘his writing strongly suggests that he had a grammar school education’ (ODNB).

Ben Jonson, b. 1572: stepson of bricklayer; attended Westminster School. May have been admitted to St John’s College, Cambridge but withdrawn after a few weeks for financial reasons, to work with his stepfather.

Thomas Kyd, bap. 1558: son of scrivener; entered Merchant Taylors’ School in 1565.

William Shakespeare, bap. 1564: son of glover; probably attended King’s School, Stratford-upon-Avon.

b. Authors educated at grammar schools who did proceed to university or the Inns of Court

Robert Greene, bap. 1558: son of saddler or cordwainer/innkeeper; probably attended free grammar school at Norwich. Probably matriculated at St John’s College, Cambridge; proceeded to MA at Clare College, Cambridge; also awarded an MA by Oxford.

Fulke Greville, b. 1554: son of well-connected Warwickshire landowner; entered Shrewsbury School in 1564. Matriculated at Jesus College, Cambridge but left without a degree.

Thomas Lodge, b. 1558: father was grocer, Lord Mayor of London, bankrupt; entered Merchant Taylors’ School in 1571 as ‘poore scholar’. Took BA at Trinity College, Oxford, then proceeded to Lincoln’s Inn.

John Lyly, b. 1554: grandson of one of the authors of the standard Latin grammar; son of a registrar (minor ecclesiastical official); probably educated at the King’s School, Canterbury. Took BA and MA at Magdalen College, Oxford.

Christopher Marlowe, bap. 1564: son of shoemaker; entered King’s School Canterbury as poor scholar c. 1578. Took BA at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, on a Parker Scholarship.

George Peele, bap. 1556: son of clerk of Christ’s Hospital; educated at Christ’s Hospital. Took BA and MA at Christ Church, Oxford.

Philip Sidney, b. 1554: son of Lord President of the Council in the Marches; attended Shrewsbury School from 1564. Attended Christ Church, Oxford but did not take a degree.

Edmund Spenser, b. 1552?: parentage uncertain; attended Merchant Taylors’ School as poor scholar. Took BA and MA at Pembroke College, Cambridge as a sizar (poor scholar performing servants’ duties).

John Webster, b. 1578-80: son of coachmaker; probably attended Merchant Taylors’ School. Proceeded to Middle Temple.

c. Cases where pre-university education unknown (but progression to university makes grammar-school education likely)

Samuel Daniel, b. 1562/3: early life uncertain (but matriculated at Oxford in 1581)

Thomas Heywood, b. c. 1573: early education not known (but matriculated at Cambridge as a pensioner in 1591)

John Marston, bap. 1576: matriculated at Oxford 1592; entered residence at Middle Temple 1595

Thomas Middleton, bap. 1580: early education not known (but matriculated at Oxford in 1598)

d. Authors not educated at grammar schools

George Chapman, b. 1559/60: son of yeoman; spent early adulthood in household of Sir Ralph Sadler

John Donne, b. 1572: son of ironmonger; educated privately. Matriculated at Oxford in 1584; admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1592.

Michael Drayton, b. 1563: son of butcher or tanner; claimed to owe his education to patronage of Goodere family.

Thomas Nashe, bap. 1567: son of clergyman; probably educated by father. Matriculated as a sizar at St John’s College, Cambridge in 1582.


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Shakespeare, William. 2016. The Norton Shakespeare, gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 3rd edn (New York: Norton).

Simon, Joan. 1977. Education and Society in Tudor England, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Stone, Lawrence. 1964. ‘The Educational Revolution in England, 1560-1640’, Past and Present, 28: 41-80

Thorne, Alison. 2000. Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare: Looking Through Language (Basingstoke: Macmillan)

Tusser, Thomas. 1573. Fiue hundreth points of good husbandry.(London)

Vickers, Brian. 1989. In Defence of Rhetoric. Rev. pbk edn. (Oxford: Clarendon)

The Voice of Anne Askew

The Voice of Anne Askew

Jennifer Richards

[1]  When Thomas Tomkis explored the question of whether the voice could be a sixth sense in the university play Lingua (1607), he gave us a clue as to what he thought the answer would be before he had even begun by making Lingua, both tongue and speech, the only female character. The answer, obviously, had to be a resounding ‘no’. The play begins with Auditus reminding Lingua that there are only five senses, and that ‘she’ – ‘an idle pratling Dame’ – is not one of them. This rejection inspires her revenge, and she puts the five senses, Auditus, Visus, Tactus, Olfactus and Gustus at loggerheads by placing a coronet in full view for them to fight over, a ruse these ‘hot-spur’ gallants fall for (Tomkis, Lingua, A3r, C3v). Only the winner of this struggle in the end is not Lingua. She is exposed as a presumptuous, talkative woman who needs to be silenced. Her punishment at the end of the play is to be locked up by ‘Common Sense’ in a ‘close prison’ in Gustus’s house (that is, the mouth), while the crown over which the senses fight is awarded, no surprise here, to Visus (Tomkis, Lingua, M4v).

[2]  The argument that this play dramatises is a familiar one. Tomkis is reaffirming a maxim from the period that is all too familiar to feminist scholars, that women should be silent (Hannay 1985: 4). However, the play also dramatises another narrative that often implicitly underpins the work of book historians and historians of reading: that this period saw a shift from the ear to the eye as the primary sense of understanding. With a very few exceptions these two ‘stories’ – the one of the silencing of women, the other of the rise of sight as the privileged sense – are not usually linked, although they should be, as this essay implies.[1] It sets out to reverse this shift, proposing that we ‘listen’ to the inscribed words of a woman who was imprisoned in this period, Anne Askew.

[3]  Do we really need to learn to ‘listen’? I propose that we do. In the last decade it has become more usual for feminist literary scholarship focussed on the early modern period to adapt and apply to women ‘recent developments from the history of the book’ (Pender and Smith 2014: 1). Thus, in addition to Gabriel Harvey, John Dee and William Drake, we now have differently ‘goal-orientated’ women readers and patrons like Lady Anne Clifford and Lady Margaret Hoby, and three queens, Katherine Parr, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. And we can now establish that a commercial playwright like Ben Jonson who aspired to ‘literary status’ had his female counterparts too. By studying the ‘design’ of a printed closet drama like Elizabeth Cary’s Tragedy of Mariam – ‘its layout and typography, from the initial logotype on the title page through to the closing ornament’ – we can show, Marta Straznicky argues, that it too ‘was marketed as the kind of drama that had emerged by 1613 as befitting a selected and educated readership’ (Straznicky 2004: 12, 48-9). But there are uncomfortable questions we also need to ask. Is one effect of this turn in literary scholarship that we silence women’s voices in an entirely different way even as we genuinely deepen our understanding of the ‘authorship, publication and circulation’ of books by women (Pender and Smith 2014: 1)? What do we lose when we advance our knowledge of the role women played in material textual publication but don’t also attend to their material voices?

[4]  It wasn’t always like this. Earlier work in the field that was intent on establishing a canon of women’s writing traded productively on the many meanings of the noun ‘voice’: ‘A mode of expression or point of view in writing; a particular literary tone or style’; ‘a right to express a preference or opinion’, or even ‘Sound produced by the vocal organs’ (Oxford English Dictionary, entries 1g, 3 b, 1). All of these meanings are helpfully blurred in Kate Chedgzoy’s introduction to Voicing Women, a collection of essays published in 1996, which reminded us that the role of feminist scholars is to recover women’s ‘voices’ as well as to create ‘a space where they can be heard afresh’ (Chedgzoy 1996: 4). Chedgzoy conveys the complexity of this task when she discusses an anonymous poem attributed to Anna Trapnel, the non-conformist faith of whom led her to wish to ‘bury’ her voice ‘underground’ in order to let the words of the Lord ‘run forth’.[2] Is it always clear who we are listening to in an anonymous religious poem in this period, she asks? And can we be sure that our ‘desires’ are not influencing ‘what it is that we hear’ or, indeed, that we are not speaking for or over women of the past (Chedgzoy 1996: 4, 8)?

[5]  This essay returns to this preoccupation with the ‘voice’ of early modern women writers, and it sets out to explore anew how we can make sense of the writing – and agency – of a woman who suppressed her voice in order to let the Lord’s voice ‘run forth’. Anne Askew spoke the Word of God more than a century before Trapnel, in the early years of the English Reformation, the 1540s; she was burned at the stake at Smithfield in 1546. The written record of her interrogations in prison survives only in an edition heavily annotated by a male contemporary, the reformer John Bale, making Chedgzoy’s question especially relevant here too: ‘whose is the voice that is speaking in this text?’ My concern, though, is not to add Askew to the canon of women’s writing. This has already been achieved, although a question remains about whether she could have managed to write about her interrogations after she had been tortured. That is, she may have dictated rather than written down what she remembered. What I want to do instead is to focus attention on Askew’s physical rather than literary voice, as it is represented and highlighted by Bale in the Examinations (1546; 1547) in order to respond to a slightly different question: who has the right to speak the Bible?[3]

[6]  Focussing on the historical physical voices of the past may well seem a foolish undertaking. The earliest scratchy recording in the British Library’s sound archive was produced with a graphophone in 1878.[4] It is deafeningly obvious that we can have no recordings of the voice, scratchy or otherwise, for periods earlier than this. What we do have, though, thanks to recent work on male-authored, female-voiced texts in the English Renaissance by, among others, Alison Thorne, Danielle Clarke, Michelle O’Callaghan, Suzanne Trill, Susan Wiseman, is an understanding of how the voices of women were understood as meaningful. This essay builds on this work, but it also departs from it, arguing for a focus on the physical voice so as to understand the transformative potential to a reformer like Bale of Askew’s speaking through the Bible. In so doing, it values the act of uttering words one believes in – sending them forth with one’s breath, tongue, teeth – over and above writing them. Or to put this another way, it privileges recitation over textual citation.

Uttering the Bible
[7]  Chedgzoy was not alone in the mid-1990s in her desire to ‘hear’ the voices of past women writers. Unsurprisingly, we find a similar blurring of literary and real voices among scholarly editors of women’s writing in this decade too. In the introduction to her edition of Anne Askew’s Examinations, published in 1996, Elaine Beilin draws attention to a knotty problem in a lively way. Askew (ca. 1521-1546) was the young woman who famously walked into Lincoln Cathedral in the early 1540s, and who occupied it for six days, reading the newly translated and printed English Bible on display. This was done in a decade that saw the 1543 Act for the Advancement of True Religion, which determined who could not read the bible: ‘“no women or artificiers, prentices, journeymen, serving men of the degrees of yeomen or under, husbandmen, nor labourers”’ (Cambers 2011: 162-3). Noblewomen and gentlewomen, in contrast, were allowed to read the bible but only ‘to themselves, alone’ (Simpson 2007: 166). Askew was arrested, interrogated and tortured in the Tower of London, then burned at the stake in 1546, but the record of her two interrogations in 1545 and 1546 was smuggled out of her prison cell and edited by the Reformation propagandist, John Bale, who also provided a paratextual apparatus framing and interpreting it. Here lies the knotty problem: thanks to Bale’s efforts, Askew’s testimony has survived, but only in an intrusively edited edition. ‘At every possible opening’, Beilin complains, he ‘interrupts’ her (Examinations 1996: xxxiv).

[8]  We can see why Beilin chooses the verb ‘interrupt’ to explain the effects of Bale’s paratext just by looking at the layout of the two tracts. Together they contain an account of Askew’s two periods of interrogation which she ‘wrote unto a secrete frynde’ from prison. Bale tells us that he ‘receyved it in coppye, by serten duche merchauntes’ who had been present at her execution (Examinations 1996: 88). In the text Askew recalls what she was asked, by whom, and how she answered. However, her testimony is surrounded by Bale’s commentary in which he sets out, as Beilin puts it, ‘to demonstrate by continual comparison that Askew’s words, actions, and beliefs are closer to the Scriptures and to the primitive church than anything written or performed by Roman Catholics for at least the previous nine centuries’ (Examinations 1996: xxxiv). To be fair, Bale’s gloss always appears in a smaller font, ensuring that Askew’s words are given prominence on the page (Figure 1). Yet, Bale also has so much more to say than Askew, and he shapes our reading of her words for his own purposes, de-authoring Askew (Beilin 2005: 347), or taming her voice to create ‘a passively silent, compliant victim’, as scholars have argued (Kemp 1999: 1033).

Figure 1: The first examinatyon of Anne Askewe (1546): © British Library Board, C.21.a.4 (1), 10r

[9]  Beilin has undoubtedly done important work, adding to the canon of early modern women’s writing someone who was half-hidden in Bale’s edition. All the same, her hankering for the ‘real’ voice of Askew now seems anachronistic because of recent developments in material book history, which emphasise the collaborative nature of a printed book’s production. One scholar who explored the Examinations in the light of these developments was Patricia Pender. In a thoughtful essay, she refuses to repeat ‘the feelings of regret and loss’ expressed by many scholars in the absence of Askew’s original manuscript, viewing the Examinations as ‘an exemplary instance of the kind of collaborative coauthorship that might prove valuable to the study of social theory of the text, early modern histories of books and reading, and feminist scholarship more broadly’ (Pender 2010: 520). To focus only on Askew as an author who is used by Bale for his own ends is ‘to ignore the many ways in which [her] words and figures exceed the frame that Bale provides for them’. Bale may have wisely sought to disguise Askew’s combativeness by presenting her as a ‘weak and humble woman’ but ‘this does not mean’ that he always ‘succeeded’. Pender invites a different reading of the relationship between text and paratext in the Examinations, looking for ‘[s]igns of interpretive struggle’ between a feisty author and her editor (Pender 2010: 519-520). And she discovers not a woman who is repeatedly interrupted, but one who ‘unapologetically […] studies’ (Pender 2010: 514).

[10]  There is no doubt that Askew is presented as an exemplary Reformation reader. ‘In processe of tyme’, Bale writes, ‘by oft readynge of the sacred Bible’, Askew ‘fell clerelye from all olde superstycyons of papystrye, to a perfyght beleve in Jhesus Christ’ (Examinations 1996: 93). But how exactly did she read? Pender’s depiction of her as a studious reader is based on the fact that she cites Bible chapters in her responses. For example, when she is asked by one of her interrogators, Christopher Dare, if she would prefer ‘to reade fyve lynes in the Byble, than to heare fyve masses in the temple’, she confesses ‘that I sayd no lesse’, explaining that ‘the one ded greatlye edyfye me, and the other nothinge at all’. In support of this statement, Askew adds that ‘saynt Paule doth witnesse in the xiiii chapter of hys first Epistle to Corinthes’, and she quotes him as saying ‘If the trumpe geveth an uncertayne sounde, who wyll prepare hymselfe to the battayle’ (Examinations 1996: 21).

[11]  There are many such examples whereby Askew ‘repeatedly out-references her foes, sometimes to the point of exhaustion’ (Pender 2010: 514). This habit of citation recalls Bale’s claim that she read the Bible ‘oft’. It also makes her look like one of the new readers created by print, someone who was able ‘to detach “sentences” from the interpretive place they have been given within Catholic tradition’, and re-arrange them independently ‘in a countertradition’; this is how Pender’s source, Peter Stallybrass, describes what Askew is doing (Stallybrass 2002: 69). Attention to the selection and re-use of sentences usually supposes a model of silent study: the reader pores over her book, perhaps marking sentences in the margin with a pen so she can find them again, perhaps adding them to a commonplace book. Later Protestant readers would use the navigational aids of the Geneva Bible (1560) – the first Bible to divide the text into numbered verses – to locate them. Askew’s discontinuous reading of her Bible is all the more remarkable since in the mid-1540s no such aids were available (Stallybrass 2002: 69-73; on the Geneva bible as a ‘Study Bible’ see also Molekamp 2015: 41-46).

[12]  Such an emphasis discovers a different side to Askew in a text that many feminist scholars have found troubling because it seems to control her voice. Yet, by the same token, we might well ask what is lost when we give up the everyday, often personal language of feminist scholarship of the 1990s. Without Beilin’s imaginative depiction of Bale interrupting Askew, for instance, might we also forget that this text is a record of an oral event and a celebration of a woman’s voice? Is it possible that Pender inadvertently makes Askew’s voice less effective even as she recovers her agency in other ways? Pender doesn’t say explicitly that Askew’s reading of the Bible was silent, but I assume that she thinks it was. It is not just that the ability to detach sentences – or to read discontinuously – is usually regarded as the product of silent study. For Pender, key moments of Askew’s rebellion are wordless. Thus, she focuses on the silent exchange between Askew in Lincoln Cathedral, when she is reading the public Bible, and the priests who approached her. The priests came two at a time, Askew says in the Examinations, ‘myndynge to have spoken to me, yet went they theyr wayes agayne with out wordes speakynge’ (Examinations 1996: 56). Pender describes this as an ‘eerily silent encounter’, as well as Askew’s ‘actions’ in the Cathedral as ‘silent’ (Pender 2010: 512).

[13]  Askew may well have read the Bible in this public place silently. But she may also have read it aloud, perhaps murmuring the words as she followed the text. We just don’t know. Legere sibi, to read to oneself, usually meant legere tacite, to read silently, Brian Cummings notes, but ‘this may have meant a low mumble rather than total silence’ (Cummings 2013: 136-7). It is also true that her most chastening responses to her interrogators are wordless. When she is asked by the Lord Mayor whether a mouse that eats the host can be said to have ‘receyved God’ she responds by saying nothing: ‘I made them no answere, but smyled’ (Examinations 1996: 27). She also repeatedly thwarts her interrogators by not telling them what they long to hear. In fact, she often has little to say. When she is asked by Bishop Bonner ‘whye I had so fewe wordes’, she responds meekly and rebelliously in the same breath: ‘God hath geven me the gyfte of knowlege, but not of utteraunce. And Salomon sayth, that a woman of fewe wordes, is a gyfte of God. Prover. 19’ (Examinations 1996: 51). Askew is reminding her rhetorically-trained interrogators that she lacks eloquence, and that she fulfils the ideal of the meek, silent woman.

[14]  And yet, paradoxically, she is also uttering this riposte, and in doing so she knowingly recites the words of wise Solomon. This is one of many easily missed moments in the first of the Examinations when we are being asked to ‘listen’ to Askew in a different way, and to recognize this text’s play with one of its keywords, the verb ‘utter’. Askew does not utter – or speak – with skill, she confesses. She has not received formal training in rhetoric at grammar school or university. But she is far from silent. She utters – in the sense of sends ‘forth a sound’, or gives out or emits ‘in an audible voice’ – the words of the Bible (Oxford English Dictionary, entry II. 5). This act of uttering, moreover, is not passive but full of knowledge and understanding.

[15]  It is this sense of giving voice that underlies the distinction Askew herself draws at another significant point in her examination between reciting and teaching the word of God, between reading aloud and speaking from the Bible and preaching it. This time she finds authority for what she says in the words of St Paul:

Then the Byshoppes chaunceller rebuked me, and sayd, that I was moche to blame for utterynge the scriptures. For S. Paule (he sayd) forbode women to speake or to talke of the worde of God. I answered hym, that I knewe Paules meanyinge so well as he, whych is, i. Corinthiorum xiiii. that a woman ought not to speake in the congregacyon by the waye of teachynge. And then I asked hym, how manye women he had seane, go into the pulpett and preache. He sayde, he never sawe non. Then I sayd, he ought to fynde no faute in poore women, except they had offended the lawe. (Examinations 1996: 29-30)

It is also this sense of ‘utter’ that underlies Bale’s defence of Askew’s recitation of the Bible. (And again, the interplay between saying and knowing is foregrounded.) ‘Plenteouse ynough is her answere here, unto thys quarellynge’, he argues, adding that ‘Manye godlye women both in the olde lawe and the newe, were lerned in the scriptures, and made utteraunce of them to the glorye of God’. And he goes one step further still, to recall the women who ‘gave knowlege’ of the resurrection to Christ’s ‘dyscyples’, including Saint Hilda, who ‘openlye dysputed … agaynst the superstycyons of certen byshoppes’ (Examinations 1996: 30-31).

[16]  To focus on utterance as a physical act of giving voice is to acknowledge Askew’s ‘material status as embodied text’ in a distinctive way (Pender 2010: 518). She has not just absorbed and memorised Scripture, by whatever method; she also breathes or speaks it, bodying it forth. We need to remember that Examinations is a written record of an oral event, and that Bale himself is sensitive to this fact for the simple reason that he believes the priests – Askew’s interrogators – would silence the Reformation. Bale argues in the conclusion to the first examination that there is a conspiracy of ‘subtyle sylence’ on the topic of the Pope among the Catholic clergy: ‘Ye shall not now heare a worde spoken agaynst hym at Paules crosse, nor yet agaynst hys olde juglynge feates’ (Examinations 1996: 67-8). Examinations aims to reverse this in several different ways. Bale not only fills in this ‘subtyle sylence’ by reminding us repeatedly of the corruption of the Pope and his ministers; he also teaches us to hear correctly the disarmingly gentle – or, as he describes them, ‘foxysh’ – voices of Askew’s interrogators, who are always trying to persuade her to ‘utter the secretes of [her] hart’ (Examinations 1996: 58-61). In his own responses, moreover, he turns up the volume. ‘Gentyll and soft wyttes are oft tymes offended’, he acknowledges, because he is ‘so vehement in rebukes’. But what modesty, he asks, would you use if you were ‘compelled to fyght with dragons, hyders [hydras], and other odyble monsters’? (Examinations 1996: 69).

[17]  Most importantly, though, he draws attention to the fact that Askew speaks according to Scripture, providing more citations in his commentary, often out-referencing her. When the Lord Mayor recalls that she had denied ‘the sacrament of the aultre’, to which she tersely says ‘that that I had sayd, I had sayd’, Bale adds a little more: ‘In thys brefe answere, she remembred Salomans counsell, Answere not a fole, all after hys folyshnesse’ (Examinations 1996: 32). On another occasion when Askew answers a question about whether she thinks she has ‘the sprete of God’ in her with characteristic brevity, saying ‘if I had not, I was but a reprobate or cast awaye’, Bale again offers more by way of explanation, citing multiple authorities for what she says from Scripture, that one has the spirit of God if one hears the Gospel and believes:

Electe are we of God (sayth Peter) through the sanctyfyenge of the sprete. i. Petri i. In everye true Christen belever dwelleth the sprete of God. Jo. 14. Their sowles are the santyfyed temples of the holye Ghost. 1. Corin. 3. He that hath not the sprete of Christ (sayth Paule) is non of Christes, Roma. 8. To them is the holye Ghost geven, whych heareth the Gospell and beleveth it, and not unto them whych wyll be justyfyed by their workes. Gala. 2. All these worthye scrpytures confirme her saynge. (Examinations 1996: 24)

Indeed, as this last example should make clear, it is Bale, not Askew, who is the scholarly reader represented in Examinations. No matter how much Askew has studied the Bible, Bale, we are shown, has studied it more. Askew may give references for what she says – for example, reminding her interrogators not just what Paul said about women speaking in public, but also where they can find his statement: ‘i. Corinthiorum xiiii’. More often, though, she paraphrases Scripture, and it is Bale who provides a reference to make it known that she speaks the Word of God. It is not that he is dismissive of her ability to cite chapters of the Bible; it is just that he values more her ability to recite Scripture from memory, without embellishment since this makes her the living embodiment of the Word of God to whom her interrogators should listen. In effect she is reading aloud the Bible without the book.

[18]  To call Bale the scholarly reader of Examinations is not to make Askew a lesser reader. In fact, the opposite is true. A literary example that Bale may have had in mind can help us to understand why. This example is ‘Folly’, the fictional female orator of Desiderius’s Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium (1511). To be sure, the Protestant firebrand Bale could not seem more different to the moderate, Catholic reformer, Erasmus. Yet Erasmus’s biblical scholarship, especially his Paraphrases, had a formative influence on the English Reformation in the 1540s, including on Bale. This work aims to make the New Testament accessible to everyone by translating it into ‘“an oratorical stream of speech’” (Cottier 2012: 31). In July 1547, six months after the death of Henry VIII, Gretchen E. Minton notes, the reformers stipulated that all churches were to have on display a copy not just of the whole Bible but also of Erasmus’s Paraphrases, the translation of which Nicholas Udall assembled: Paraphrases, The first tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus (1548). In the same year, she adds, Bale was completing his own paraphrase of one of the books of the New Testament that Erasmus had left out, Revelation: Image of Both Churches (Minton 2002: 291-2). Moriae Encomium, translated into English by Thomas Chaloner just a couple of years later, sets out in a rather unconventional way to make sense of this simple – or foolish – idea, that the meaning of the Bible is best communicated not with learned commentaries but with an ordinary, speaking voice. This is one of the arguments that Bale is also making in his very different and much less playful way in Examinations. Like Erasmus, moreover, he uses a feminine voice to make the case.

[19]  Moriae Encomium is an oration spoken by Folly, and she begins by mocking the poor delivery of famous wise men, including Socrates. If this seems a lightweight subject suitable only for Folly herself, as it should do, then we may be surprised to find ourselves listening more attentively later in her speech when she turns to the poor delivery of university schoolmen and divines. Late in her oration, Folly dramatises the sharp voice of a friar-preacher asserting that heretics should be burned at the stake. And she sends up the way in which learned divines stretch the literal meaning of Scripture with their complicated, allegorical commentaries (Erasmus 1549: R3r-v; Q4r-v, R1r).

[20]  The interesting question for us is why Erasmus chose to put this attack in the mouth of a self-confessed fool: a woman. One explanation, offered by Elizabeth D. Harvey in Ventriloquized Voices, is that Erasmus uses Folly as a ‘shield’, allowing him ‘to say with impunity what he might otherwise not be able to articulate openly’ (Harvey 1992: 63). It is his privilege to do so of course, and as Harvey notes, he is able ‘to take on temporarily the voice or perspective of the disempowered precisely because he is not dispossessed of various enabling factors: he is male, educated, and knowledgeable not only about those subjects he anatomizes … but also about the modes of expression correlated with each’ (Harvey 1992: 63-4). But there is another reason why he hides behind Folly, I suggest, which puts those ‘enabling factors’ under critical scrutiny. The argument of Moriae Encomium – that reading the bible aloud in a plain speaking voice reveals its meaning much more readily than does the commentary of erudite divines – is best made by an obviously foolish speaker, literate but without a formal university education: a woman. When Folly speaks the same verses over which the divines labour, their literal meaning is made clear. Bale is making a similar point in Examinations, although he used the voice not of a fictional character but of a ‘real’ person, the gentlewoman Anne Askew, and in so doing he also goes beyond Erasmus, providing a powerful counter-defence of the right of a modestly educated woman to recite and embody Scripture in a meaningful way without the say-so of the male Catholic elite.

[21]  This essay began with the suggestion that the material turn in literary studies at the start of this century is neglecting the voices of women writers, and I focussed on Anne Askew’s Examinations both to show how this is happening but also to recover her voice in so far as that is possible. I sided with scholars two decades earlier who were intent on recovering women’s voices in a variety of different senses. But my aim to recover the physical voice of Askew will no doubt seem a foolhardy enterprise. Even in these earlier studies it was not the real voice that scholars were hoping to recover after all these centuries. ‘Voice is a powerful metaphor’, Elizabeth Harvey observes, ‘for the rebirth of what has been suppressed by patriarchal culture since language provides the currency in society and because voice registers in an immediate way that linguistic power’ (Harvey 1992: 5). The tenor of this metaphor of ‘voice’ is female agency but it keeps some connection to its ‘vehicle’, language and speech. We can see this metaphor at play in the introduction to Beilin’s edition, where she describes Bale as interrupting Askew. We can see it again even more clearly in an essay by Boyd M. Berry, which explores how Askew’s ‘shrewd, tactical female voice’ is ‘replaced by an impersonal, self-less voice’ – that of the Protestant martyr – by her male editor and interrogators (Berry 1997: 182-3). The ‘voice’ is a powerful and seductive metaphor in these studies. It is not hard for us to imagine Askew being talked down to and talked over even as we suspect that Beilin and Berry are actually interested in something entirely different: whether it is possible to reclaim Askew’s literary voice or writing – her ‘authorial presence’ (Harvey 1992: 1) – from Bale.

[22]  The recognition that ‘voice’ is a metaphor led scholars like Harvey in a different direction to the one I am taking in this essay, away from the pretence that we might actually ‘hear’ Renaissance women to a study instead of the appropriation of female-voiced narrative in the writing of this period, and of the cultural work of silencing and marginalising that it does. Poststructuralist literary theory has ‘repeatedly challenged the stability of the categories that appear to lend “voice” its coherence as a metaphor’, Harvey argues, and as a result we cannot assume any longer that there is a ‘clear correlation between the gender of a body and the gender of a text’ (Harvey 1992: 5). Indeed, it would be foolish to assume that ‘voice’ is meant literally.

[23]  The fact that so many male-authored texts with female personae survive from the Renaissance, should not surprise us. Male writers in this period were well trained in the art of impersonation at the Tudor grammar school, and this extended to female voices too, so much so, Lynn Enterline proposes, that ‘transvestite theater’ was an integral part ‘of school training in how to become a Latin-speaking gentleman’ (Enterline 2012: 88). There is a ‘dramatic, self-conscious process of impersonation’ at work in all school exercises, Enterline writes, from speaking the single sentences collected in the vulgaria by boys in the early forms in the character, perhaps, of a master or a schoolboy, to the more advanced rhetorical exercises of the later forms, especially prosopopoeia: ‘a certaine Oracion made by voice, and lamentable imitacion, upon the state of any one’ (Enterline 2012: 80; Rainolde 1563: A4r; N1r-v). In these last exercises, it is the personae of women that dominate: Hecuba, Niobe, Andromache, Medea, Cleopatra (Enterline 2012: 83).

[24]  What is being impersonated in the performance of these female voices? It cannot only have been their different quality. There has been a great deal of thought given to how boys’ voices were used and represented on the Renaissance public stage, and many references to squeaky and cracking voices have been collected (Bloom 2007: 21-65). But there is so much more to an expressive voice than this. After all, Bottom makes a laughable mistake in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he declares that, if he is given the woman’s part to play, ‘I’ll speak in a monstrous little voice’ (Shakespeare 2016: 1.2.43-44), line 299). Equally important is the emotional range of the classical, literary female voices available for imitation and the subject position they represent. Richard Rainolde’s sole example of prosopopoeia is a speech by Hecuba, a grieving mother and Queen of Troy, at the point of the city’s utter devastation. It is full of figures that express strong emotion: ‘What kyngdome can always assure his state, or glory? What strength can always last? What power maie always stande?’ (Rainolde 1563: N2v).[5]

[25]  Unsurprisingly, Renaissance female impersonation was sometimes so good that it has created debate among modern scholars more than four hundred years later about the authorship of some anonymous texts with female personae.[6] One of these debates concerns the authorship of an elegy titled ‘The Doleful Lay of Clorinda’. The elegy is one of several mourning the death of Philip Sidney, appended to Edmund Spenser’s Colin Clouts Come Home Again (1595), and the only one without an attributed author. ‘The Lay’ is related by the male narrator of an earlier elegy, ‘Astrophel’, but its performer, Clorinda – the ‘I’ of the ‘Lay’ – is identified by him as Philip’s sister, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. Here, then, is a conundrum. Did Mary Sidney write the ‘Lay’, as some scholars have claimed, or did Edmund Spenser write it for her, taking on her persona and ‘drawing upon her own poetic habits and quirks’? (Clarke 2000: 454). In a classic study of the ‘Lay’, Danielle Clarke steps outside the debate about its authorship, observing that even if Mary Sidney was a contributor in some way, its placing in this book by Spenser means that he, not she, owns it, prompting her to consider a new question: why would Spenser choose ‘to adopt a feminine literary persona’? (Clarke 2000: 452). Clarke’s analysis has much to tell us about the use made of women’s voices in this period. Rather as the Hecuba example suggests, they carry emotion from a subject position not usually available to a male writer. In the case of ‘The Lay’, adopting Mary Sidney’s ‘voice’ places Spenser in a closer personal relationship to her aristocratic brother and esteemed poet than his status and ‘tenuous (although much desired) connection warranted’ (Clarke 2000: 457, 466-7).

[26]  This sensitivity to the effect of ventriloquization is clearly relevant to Examinations too, which has a similarly emotionally-charged investment in its main speaker, Anne Askew, although perhaps not in the way we might expect. I am not thinking of Bale’s possible ventriloquization – and silencing – of Askew. In the absence of her original manuscript we cannot know whether he interfered with her text or not. In any case, it is generally accepted that the testimony is hers. Instead, I am interested in Bale’s and Askew’s joint preoccupation with what happens to her voice, what she is made to say and how she speaks back. Steven Connor’s distinction between passive and active forms of ventriloquism will help me to make sense of this. Ventriloquism, he proposes, can denote either ‘the experience of being spoken through by others’ or ‘the power to speak through others’ (Connor 2000: 14). The first form – an ‘author speaking through the voice of the other gender’ – preoccupies Renaissance feminist scholars like Harvey since it ‘fostered a vision that tended to reinforce women’s silence or to marginalize their voices when they did speak or write’ (Harvey 1992: 2, 5; on the complex metaphorical meanings of ‘voice’ see Dolor, 2015). It also preoccupied both Bale and Askew. An example of this form of ventriloquization is Bishop Bonner’s reading aloud of Askew’s confession of faith:

Be it knowne (sayth he) to all men, that I Anne Askewe, do confesse thys to be my faythe and beleve, notwithstandynge my reportes made afore to the contrarye. I beleve that they whych are howseled [received communion] at the hands of a prest, whether hys conversacyon be good or not, de receyve the bodye and bloude of Christ in substaunce reallye. Also I do beleve it after the consecracyon, whether it be receyved or reserved, to be no lesse than the verye bodye and bloude of Christ in substaunce. Fynallye I do beleve in thys and all other sacraments of the holye churche, in all poyntes accordynge to the olde catholyck faythe of the same. In witnesse wherof, I the seyd Anne have subscrybed my name. (Examinations 1996: 59)

This is an emphatically oral event. As Askew explains, Bonner ‘wolde not suffer me to have the coppie therof’, and what she shares is based on what she heard and can remember (Examinations 1996: 58). It is also a very odd event. Askew is being asked to endorse a doctrinal point of Roman Catholicism to which she does not assent, that the sacrament is the body of Christ. But it is odd for another reason since it involves layers of reported speech. Askew is ‘being spoken through’ in the moment of this confession’s performance. Bonner is putting words in her mouth: ‘Then he redde it to me, and asked me, if I ded agre to it’. Yet, it is Askew who is sharing the story – perhaps even dictating it – and this means that she is ventriloquizing Bonner ventriloquizing her, and exposing his attempt to speak through her. Her resistance is quietly evident. She responds by refusing to affirm what he says, saying only that ‘I beleve so moche therof, as the holye scripture doth agre to’ (Examinations 1996: 60). Askew joins the ranks of other martyrs who used their voice to resist rather than confirm what had been written for them, those like Thomas Bilney who read aloud a recantation of his heresies that was passed to him at his execution on the 16th August 1531 at Lollard’s Pit in Norwich but, according to at least one account, by ‘muttering’ the words so ‘softly’ that it was uncertain whether he had recanted at all (Cummings 2013: 133-7).

[27]  Bale builds on this moment of simple resistance. Part of his purpose in Examinations, I argued earlier, is to stop the silencing of the Reformation, and he does this in various ways. This includes reminding us at every opportunity, and in his own distinctively loud voice, just how corrupt are the Pope and his minions. But another way he does this is to turn Askew into an active ventriloquist. Indeed, what else is Askew’s uttering of Scripture but an act of ventriloquization? By the same token, what else is Bale doing when he provides references to support her brief responses other than showing that she has ‘the power to speak through’ the women and men of the Bible? If we are in any doubt about whether this is happening, I suggest we turn to Askew’s psalm, the epilogue to the first of the Examinations: ‘The voyce of Anne Askewe out of the 54. Psalme of David, called. Deus in nomine tuo’. The title is wonderfully provocative. The literary persona of the psalm is King David, and he is calling down God’s revenge on his enemies. However, psalms are performance scripts, and their meaning is activated when they are said or sung. Matthew Parker made this very point in the preface to his Psalter when he explains the spiritual benefits of voicing psalms: ‘Verse harde in mouth: while oft I chowde, / I spied therin no wast: / Cleare sent to mynde: more sweetely flowde, /earst thus not felt in tast’ (Parker 1567: B4r; see also Hamlin 2015). The meaning of this psalm is also activated once we understand, not so much that Askew wrote it – if she did – but that she voiced it. When she did so, she breathed life into King David even as she stands in for him, ensuring that the link between God and his favoured people is not broken.

For thy names sake, be my refuge,
And in thy truthe, my quarrell judge.
Before the (lorde) lete me be hearde,
And with faver my tale regarde
Loo, faythlesse men, agaynst me ryse,
And for thy sake, my deathe practyse.
My lyfe they seke, with mayne and myght
Whych have not the, afore their syght
Yet helpest thu me, in thys dystresse,
Savynge my sowle, from cruelnesse.
I wote thu wylt revenge my wronge,
And vysyte them, ere it be longe.
I wyll therfor, my whole hart bende,
Thy gracyouse name (lorde) to commende.
From evyll thu hast, delyvered me,
Declarynge what, myne enmyes be.
Prayse to God.

(Examinations 1996: 72)

This is a female-voiced complaint with a difference. We are not reading a male author impersonating a woman, say the defeated Queen of Troy, Hecuba. Instead, we are reading – and perhaps also performing ourselves – a woman who has paraphrased a psalm and who is speaking it, making David’s call for revenge her own. In short, what matters is not that she wrote this paraphrase but that it is in her ‘voyce’. With her breath, Askew transfers to herself the spirit of David’s call for revenge and, if her ‘voyce’ is read aloud with understanding, the work of Reformation continues.

[28]  My argument, then, is a simple one: the idea that Askew voiced this psalm is empowering. The same applies to Askew’s recitation of Scripture in the rest of the Examinations. To put this another way, I am less concerned with the question of whether Bale’s editing interferes with Askew’s written record – or even with the possibility that she did not write this testimony down herself – than with the emphasis she and Bale place on the fact that she utters Scripture throughout. Askew has found her place in the canon of early modern women’s writing thanks to the efforts of Beilin and others. She has yet to find her place in the historical defence of women’s public reading of the Bible. Unless we pay attention to the performative emphasis in the Examinations we will continue to overlook this. One of the most forceful contributions to this defence, which has been recognized by feminist scholars, came a century later. The Quaker Margaret Fell would use her physical and literary voice in 1666 to argue with a directness Askew lacks, that ‘Woman’s speaking in the Power of the Lord’ is justified. Fell contests the same misreading of Corinthians 1.14 that Askew did, reminding us that women have speaking parts in the bible – ‘Elizabeth spoke with a loud voice [to Mary]. Blessed art thou amongst Women’ – and also of the hypocrisy of male ventriloquism, directing her anger at ‘blind Priests’ who ‘will make a Trade of Women’s Words to get Money by, and take Texts, and preach Sermons upon Women’s Words, and still cry out, Women must not speak’ (Fell 1666). Fell’s defence is more focused on female-voiced narrative than Askew’s but her argument that women do ‘speak in the Power of the Lord’ is exactly the same.

[29]  One of the many benefits of the material turn in literary studies is that it has prompted us to interrogate and expand the ‘idea of early modern women’s writing’. This field ‘has never been richer in terms of volume and variety of texts and authors’, argue Patricia Pender and Rosalind Smith in the introduction to a superb collection of essays, Material Cultures of Early Modern Women’s Writing, ‘but our assessment of what constitutes a woman writer often remains tied to an identifiable female voice and a more or less original text considered in its first context of production’ (Pender and Smith 2014: 2). Attention to recent developments in book history – especially Matt Cohen’s emphasis on the ‘choral’ elements of book production in The Networked Wilderness (2006) – allows them to include ‘literary activities that have hitherto been considered “extra-authorial”, such as women’s patronage, editing and even translation’, and to explore women’s writing as ‘publication events taking place in multiple modes over time’ (Pender and Smith 2014: 1-2, citing Cohen 2009: 6-7). ‘Choral’ is a suggestive word for scholars not uninterested in oral cultures, a group that includes Pender, Smith and some of their contributors. Yet, the primary aim of this collection is to remind us that print-publication is ‘choral’ in the sense of collaborative, ‘involving typesetters, printers, book-sellers, and readers as well as authors’ (Pender and Smith 2014: 2). This is despite the fact that Cohen presents the most far-reaching re-examination of the neglect of orality by book historians to date because he aims to close the gap between the history of the early modern book and Native American systems of communication, describing publication as ‘choral’ to allow for the voice as well as ‘a series of producers’ (Cohen 2009: 12-19).

[30]  Does the neglect of the material voice matter since so many other rich insights are shared? In this essay I have argued that it does, exploring what an emphasis on voice might mean for the way we read Anne Askew’s Examinations, noting that she is empowered by her male editor John Bale as a reader and speaker rather than as a writer. I want to conclude, though, by registering why this matters for literary scholarship more generally, recalling Chedgzoy’s recognition that there is a correlation between the textual ‘voices’ of the past and the living, breathing public voices of the (now) twentyfirst-century feminist critics who are doing the work of their recovery; and I would like to suggest one way we might strengthen that.

[31]  We know from daily experience that the physical voice is a powerful means to agency and, dare I say it, perhaps more so than the literary voice. This is why the voice matters to a feminist campaigner like Naomi Wolf. Just think about the recent attention she gives to the vocal fry of Californian valley girls: ‘Young women’, she writes, ‘give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice’. Or recall the observations of the sociologist Anne Karpf on the deepening of women’s voices since the 1950s. ‘In pursuit of social and economic equality’, she asks, ‘have women traded in one vocal convention for another? Instead of liberating women, and men, to use the full range of intonation and colour, has the new tyranny of huskiness made women with higher voices feel inadequate?’ (Karpf 2006: 177).

[32]  However, rather than focussing on the changing qualities of the gendered voice for the study of earlier texts, or the meanings that a change in tone might produce – the implications of which I consider in my forthcoming book – I propose instead to end with a simple observation that transcends history: that using the voice is in itself empowering. The voice may be ephemeral but it is also curiously material or bodily. It emanates from within us, and it touches those who hear it, evoking feelings, positive and negative, producing actions. Indeed, the voice is, Steven Connor allows, translating Guy Rosolato, ‘“the body’s greatest power of emanation”’, enabling even the most dependent person to experience in the act of voicing ‘a sense of sonorous omnipotence, the power to exercise its will through sound’ (Connor 2000: 20).[7] This effect of the voice was understood by Renaissance schoolmasters who thought delivery ‘the chief grace or excellency in Rhetorick’ (Brinsley 1612: 2E2r); by the puritans of the Reformation who argued that the ‘living voice’ of the preacher was needed to activate ‘the latent force’ of the ‘written word’ of scripture so as ‘to strike home to the heart of the listener’ (Hunt 2010: 27); and by the satirists of the 1590s who often emulated ‘a kind of shouting on paper’ (Raymond 2003: 43-4). It mattered to women too if we learn to listen, as I have been proposing. Just imagine what new histories we might recover if we were to pay more attention to what the physical voice meant to the readers of the Renaissance and even re-animate with our own voices the ‘sonorous’ empowerment of someone like Askew, as Bale intended.

University of Newcastle


I am grateful to Alison Thorne, who first drew my attention to the rhetorical power of the female literary voice, and to Richard Wistreich and Felicity Laurence, both of them musicologists and professional singers, who helped me to understand the power of the physical voice.

[1] Monica Green’s book-length study of the effects of the development of male literate medicine on the oral traditions of female midwifery, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine (2008), is one such exception.[back to text]

[2] Chedgzoy 1996: 4-5, citing from a section headed “From the 29th day of the 10th month, 1657”, Bodleian Library S.1. 42. Th., p. 257.[back to text]

[3] These two tracts are titled The first examinacyon of Anne Askewe lately martyred in Smythfelde, by the Romysh popes vpholders, with the elucydacyon of Iohan Bale (1546), and The lattre examinacyon of Anne Askewe latelye martyred in Smythfelde, by the wycked Synagoge of Antichrist, with the Elucydacyon of Iohan Bale (1547).[back to text]

[4] It happens to be a woman’s voice, although who it belongs to is not entirely clear. It might belong to Queen Victoria who might be saying something like: ‘Greetings… the answer must be… I have never forgotten’.  http://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/collections/2010/09/20/a-regal-recording/, last accessed 29th August 2015.[back to text]

[5] On the importance of Hecuba as an example for Erasmus in De Copia, and in Reinhard Lorich’s Latin translation of Aphthonius’s Progymnasmata as well as in the Tudor schoolroom see Enterline 2012: 124-39. For discussion of the vocal range offered by the female voice see Trill 1996.[back to text]

[6] See Lyne 2008 and Thorne 2008. Both are responding to the pioneering work of the classicist Spentzou 2003, who explains why the fictional women letter-writers of Ovid’s Heroides should be treated as authors with their own separate ‘voice’. See also Kerrigan 1991; Clarke 2008.[back to text]

[7] Citing Guy Rosolato, ‘La Voix: Entre corps et langage’, Revue française de pyschanalyse, 38 (1974): 76.[back to text]


The Examinations of Anne Askew. 1996 [1546, 1547]. Ed. Elaine V. Beilin (New York, Oxford University Press)

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Berry, Boyd M. 1997. ‘Of the Manner in Which Anne Askew “Noised It”’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 96.2: 182-203

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Brayman-Hackel, Heidi. 2005. Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender and Literacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Brinsley, John. 1612. Ludus Literarius: Or, The Grammar Schoole (London)

Cambers, Andrew. 2011. Godly Reading: Print, Manuscript and Puritanism in England, 1580-1720 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Chedgzoy, Kate, Melanie Hansen and Suzanne Trill (eds). 1996. Voicing Women: Gender and Sexuality in Early Modern Writing (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)

Clarke, Danielle. 2000. ‘“In sort as she it sung”: Spenser’s “Doleful Lay” and the Construction of Female Authorship’, Criticism 42.4: 451-468

_____. 2008. ‘Ovid’s Heroides, Drayton and the Articulation of the Feminine in the English Renaissance’, Renaissance Studies 22.3: 385-400

Cohen, Matt. 2009. The Networked Wilderness: Communicating in Early New England (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press)

Connor, Steven. 2000. Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Cottier, Jean-François. 2012. ‘Erasmus’s Paraphrases: A New Kind of Commentary?’ Trans. Karen Mak and Nancy Senior, in The Unfolding of Words: Commentary in the Age of Erasmus, ed. by Judith Rice Henderson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press): pp. 27-46

Crawford, Julie. 2010. ‘Reconsidering Early Modern Women’s Reading, or, How Margaret Hoby Read her de Mornay’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 73.2: 193-233

Cummings, Brian. 2013. Mortal Thoughts: Religion, Secularity, & Identity in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Dolor, Mladan. 2015. ‘Preface: Is There a Voice in the Text?’ in Sound Effects: The Object Voice in Fiction, ed. by Jorge Sacido-Romero and Sylvia Mieszkowski (Leiden: Brill): pp. xi-xx.

Enterline, Lynn. 2012. Shakespeare’s Schoolroom: Rhetoric, Discipline, Emotion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press)

Erasmus, Desiderius. 1548/9. The first tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus upon the Newe Testamente. Trans. Nicholas Udall (London)

_____. 1549. The Praise of Folie. Trans. Thomas Chaloner (London)

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Nicholas Breton and Early Modern Explorations of the Mind

Nicholas Breton and Early Modern Explorations of the Mind

Douglas Clark

[1]  Nicholas Breton (ca. 1554/5-1626) had a prolific and heterogeneous literary output, spending most of his adult career vying for the patronage of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, though as Conny Loder contends in the only scholarly monograph to analyse the intellectual vitality of Breton’s canon to date, ‘Today, he remains neglected’ (Loder 2014: 9).[1] The presiding factor in this critical neglect seems to stem from the apparently prosaic nature of his writing, despite its generic variety and intellectual scope. Drew Daniel, for instance, comments in his assessment of the correlation between Breton’s poem ‘Of the Four Elements’ and Empedocles’ materialist philosophy that ‘Breton’s curio of justly forgotten verse is helpful because of its very pitch perfect mediocrity’, emphasising the value of its ‘mundane exemplarity’ as a means to understand how a certain strand of classical philosophy percolated through early modern intellectual culture (Daniel 2014: 289). The ostensibly poor quality of Breton’s verse and prose has often occluded the usefulness of Breton’s work as an expedient means by which to deepen our understanding of English Renaissance literature and thought. His work has often been marginalised and even denigrated, yet, his work has begun to be profitably studied for its subject matter.

[2]  Judging from recent scholarship, a prevailing interest still lies in Breton’s writing. His works have been variously cited to substantiate the importance of numerous aspects of early modern culture, ranging from: experiences and representations of the deaf; the invention and manipulation of genres; commendation of geographical exploration; the celebration of cuckoldry; advice manuals to mothers; and the history of penitential verse (Cockayne 2003; Fowler 2003; Fuller 2007; McEachern 2008; Poole 1995; Gazzard 2016). The following essay continues in this tradition of critical reclamation. In the spirit of this special edition, I aim to illustrate the importance of Nicholas Breton’s literary voice by investigating his specific interest in exploring the qualities and inner-construction of the mind in a selection of his verse and prose works. Clarifying Breton’s interest in mapping aspects of the psyche in relation to his literary contemporaries will help to further emphasise the critical utility and value of his work, beyond the aesthetic concerns which have confined his writing to the extremities of the early modern canon. This examination will help to demonstrate how his work modifies or deviates from early modern paradigms of mind and interiority as conceived in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writing.

Dreams and the Sorrow of the Mind
[3] Breton’s creative energies often seem to be divided between exploring the mind and its associated functions, and deliberating upon the peculiarities of mental travel into countries ‘unknowne’ (Breton 1597: sig. G1r). Dreams, for instance, frequently function as particularly useful narrative devices for this objective, as witnessed in ‘The Blessed Weeper’ (1601). In this meditative poem, the poetic speaker uses the ghostly vision of Mary to contemplate the constraints put upon the mind to conceive of the interior and exterior world. The speaker caught ‘half in a slumber, and more half a sleepe’ (Breton 1601: sig. D4r, l. 2) describes how the apparition of Mary Magdalene appeared to them in a dream-vision as vehicle to convey her penitential ‘weeping’ (sig. D4r, l. 6). By the conclusion of the forty-nine stanzas of rhyme royal in which the ‘discourse’ of her ‘passions’ are laid out, the speaker suggests that ‘her speech … wisht all women might such VVeepers be’ (sig. F4r, ll. 442-443). Patricia Badir astutely argues that this text demonstrates Breton’s distinctive attempt to depict female forms of mystical spirituality that are rooted in intellectual and ethical virtue, rather than bodily sacrifice. We should, thus, understand the Magdalene figure to be used as a model of self-reflection that taps into the ‘incomprehensibleness of spiritual experience’ (Badir 2009: 115), questioning the constraints placed upon the mind which one must struggle with in order to conceive of the world and the moral self. Bearing witness to the ‘truth’ (Breton 1601: sig. F3v, l. 395) of Mary’s tears, the speaker finds an answer for their initial quandary stated at the beginning of the poem, as they expressed how their ‘troubled senses at a strange debate’ questioned ‘VVhat kind of care should most my spirit keepe’ (sig. D4r, ll. 3-4). The mind, as depicted in this poem, provides succour for the troubled ‘spirit’ and corporeal ‘senses’, acting as a receptacle for this dream-vision of divine intervention. It is able to house the vision of Mary Magdalene, allowing for the poetic speaker to delineate the cathartic truth of penitential grief for himself and his intended audience.

[4] Breton’s ‘The Blessed Weeper’ represents an example of early modern penitential verse which is structured upon contemplating the complex operational dynamic between sense experience and mental activity. His work, moreover, subverts normative paradigms of female physicality and sacrifice being depicted as the font of curative spirituality in this strain of Renaissance poetry, although the conclusion of the speaker’s contemplation of sorrow and its purifying effects does intimate a rather prescriptive use of female grief – ‘all women’ are encouraged to cultivate their minds to follow Magdalene’s example of being paragons of spiritual and physical purity. Critics have drawn parallels between Breton’s writing and that of the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, largely because of Breton’s proclivity for depictions of despondency and weeping in his penitential verse (Kuchar 2008; Sweeney 2006). Comparing the ‘plain’ style of poetry that Southwell and Breton represent, Sweeney describes Breton’s ‘O wretched wight’ poem within The Workes of a Young Wyt (1577) as a complaint which relies on the ‘Petrarchan foregrounding of the body and the effects of emotion’ to situate its poetic ‘action’, lingering on the function of the mind as merely an allegorical aesthetic backdrop to structure his moralistic verse (Sweeney 2006: 186). This particular poem, alongside the mental landscapes elucidated upon in A Floorish upon Fancie and The Toyes of an Idle Head (1577), are proposed to typify Breton’s cultivation of mental schematics within his writing:

When he does turn to the inner landscape of the mind he places it in the dream-world … Breton uses poetic landscape the way the theatre might – a prop against which to present his text, or as emblem, not as a method of eliciting a response which gives him insights into his own psychological state (Sweeney 2006: 186).

To this end, Sweeney proposes that Breton does not share ‘Southwell’s sharper understanding of psychology’ as his poetry often ends in allegorical moralising reminiscent of Tudor morality plays (Sweeney 2006: 188). Breton does, however, continuously reflect on the nature of mental experience through a variety of his poetical works, and the greater implications of psychological inquiry for his own mind and those who might read his poetry. We have seen previously how the dream-vision in ‘A Blessed Weeper’ is used by the speaker as a means to understand and possibly augment their own ‘spirit’ (Breton 1601: sig. D4r) in accordance with female modes of penitential practice. Although Breton does often linger upon the relationship between body and mind as a way to promote an ethical ideal of human virtue, the poetic landscape of the mind that Breton constructs throughout his canon is not facile, or merely subordinate to the concerns of a ‘Petrarchan foregrounding of the body’.

[5] By drawing comparisons between Southwell’s ‘Vale of Tears’ from his collection Moeoniae in 1595 and Breton’s poem, Sweeney proposes that Southwell’s ‘non-generic’ ‘psychologised landscape’ is ‘integral to the narrator’s self’, unlike the landscape of Breton’s Workes of a Young Wyt and A Floorish Upon Fancie: ‘it [Southwell’s landscape] is created by the narrator’s interior experience, not merely for it to be played out upon’ (Sweeney 2006: 186). Identifying Breton’s ‘O wretched wight’ poem within Workes of a Young Wyt as a ‘version’ of Southwell’s ‘vale of tears’ (Sweeney 2006: 186) which concentrates on erotic betrayal rather than spiritual grief, Sweeney highlights how Breton’s poetic speaker converts the sorrow he feels over the actions of his cruel mistress into ‘musicke’ through the percussive beating of his ‘breste, / And sobbing sighes, which yeelde a heauy sounde’ (Breton 1577: sig. D1r). The poetic environment that Breton cultivates through this piece serves to place focus upon the physicality of the wight’s body, rather than his mind in Sweeney’s estimation. Yet if we continue through this larger work we will find the image of a ‘wight’ (this time being described as ‘wofull’ and ‘in pitious plight’) being used for the specific purpose of providing an insight into the poetic speaker’s own psychological state (Breton 1577: sig. E4v).

[6] The descriptor of ‘woeful wight’ is later used to portray a man within a portion of the poetic speaker’s own dream-vision in Workes of a Young Wyt – a man who is ‘driuvn by destinie’ to wander the ‘luckless land’ of the speaker’s mind (Breton 1577: sig. E4v-F1r). He can, in Breton’s terms, find no ‘comfort’ ‘nor sparke of joy, to cheere the mourning mynde’ (sig. F1r). Engaging this pitiable man in conversation, the speaker reflects that ‘his words more halfe amazed in minde’ stimulated ‘more inward griefe, then now I can descrie’ (sig. F1r). This encounter leads the psychological journey to reach its conclusion, as the speaker descends into a cave beneath ‘hard happe hill’ (sig. F4r) to hear the laments of the ‘ghost’ like figure of ‘Care’ (sig. G1r) and the other ‘sundry sorrowes’ (sig. G1v) of those who reside in the ‘dungeon of despair’ (sig. G2r). The speaker’s vision is ended by the collective ‘shriking’ of the unfortunate souls who are led to enter a mysterious chamber inside the dungeon (sig. G2r). Started from his slumber by this noise, the speaker hopes that God ‘send us all the ioyes of heaven at last’ once ‘worldy woes are past’ (sig. G2r). Instead of concluding decisively by eliciting ‘cheering communal prayer’ (Sweeney 2006: 188), the rather chilling experience of the speaker’s dream-narrative shifts onto a poetic episode where the speaker is forced by his ‘Muse’ to write ‘madly’ in ‘remembrance’ of his ‘passion’ for ‘the delicate ladie’ he espied within a ‘garden’ in a previous moment of his waking-life (Breton 1577: sig. G2v). The pain that Breton’s poetic persona feels over both spiritual grief and sexual desire never deserts him – it is continually stimulated and exacerbated either by the cultivation of melancholy within his own mind, or by the intervention of his poetic muse throughout the work as a whole. This persona is thus left in almost complete subservience to internal sorrow and external inspiration. In this way, to augment Sweeney’s proposition, the psychic trauma and mental landscapes portrayed in Breton’s Workes of a Young Wyt are created and cultivated both by the narrator’s interior experience, and through the mind’s active relationship to sense experience, memory, and the whims of a cruel muse. This creative dynamic allows Breton’s poetic speaker to provide a more robust poetic commentary on the nature of mental phenomena and how the landscape of the psyche is developed in harmony with emotional affect.

[7] The figuration of mental landscapes proves to be a vitally important tool for how Breton wishes this particular text to be interpreted as a product in the early modern marketplace. As he notes in the primordium to Workes of a Young Wyt, this collection ostensibly marks his inaugural foray into the world of published poetry: ‘this is first tyme I have stird my brayne’ (Breton 1577: sig. A3r). Envisioning potential readers of his poem as consumers of an aesthetic product, sampling and judging his verse as one would taste ‘Cheese’ or ‘meat’ (sig. A2r), Breton encourages his reader to account for his ‘braine’ as ‘a new digd ground, / My rimes wild Oates, which every where abound’ (sig. A4r). Whether the reader judges that ‘it is bald rhyme, not worth the reading’ or that ‘it is good enough to reade, when a man hath nothing els to doo’ (sig. A2r-A2v), Breton wishes his reader ‘well’ (sig. A2v). Regardless of their reaction to this particular text, the poet hopes that his future labours will ‘prouide you some other newe ware for your olde golde’ (sig. A2v). He conveys an understanding of his book’s role within the early modern market place and its relationship to earlier forms of versification.

[8] Breton, in this preface, demonstrates a witty understanding of his own value as a commercial poet, as well as being sympathetic of the thoughts which are stimulated in the minds of the browsing readers in the bookstalls of St. Paul’s – he ‘imagines his verse thumbed through, sniffed at, and criticized’ (Harrison 2014, 245-46), in addition to considering what the contents of his own ‘brayne’ signify. The commonplace rhetorical topos of poetic humility which prefigures Workes of a Young Wyt explicitly foregrounds the importance of organic landscapes as they and the speaker’s verse develop through the collection as a whole. We are made repeatedly aware of how crucial the conveyance of interior, mental experience is to the progress of the speaker’s voyage through their mind, in addition to how we understand and judge the work as an aesthetic accomplishment: whether ‘it is prety poetrie’ or ‘mean stuffe’ (Breton 1577: sig. A2r). The creation of mental landscapes are, therefore, integral to the development of the narrative in Workes of a Young Wyt – the piece as a whole is framed by the sustained conceit of the brain as arable land which may produce poetic fruit or grain. This image of organic potency within the poet’s pastoral mental world (one which is just about to bloom) prefigures the succeeding cornucopia of verse works, providing justification of the poet’s creative capabilities.

[9] Reflecting on the mind’s constitution and the exploration of its interior landscape pervades a large breadth of Breton’s works. One of his later works, Strange News out of Divers Countries (1622), portrays itself as a found narrative, divulging to the reader ‘strange matters’ from ‘a strange land’ whose ‘strange people’ worship Nature as a ‘goddesse’ (Breton 1622: sig. A3r-A3v). The narrator opens the piece by providing a brief exposition on the qualities of this country (the language, religion, dress, and social formalities adhered to). This opening serves to introduce the discovery of a cache of travel writing from one of this ‘strange’ country’s own inhabitants – a fool of the population’s ‘owne chusing’ (sig. B2r). The fool’s papers and books expound upon the natural topography of his own land as well as some locations which still remain ‘unknowne’ to its own inhabitants (sig. C1v). This fantastical travel narrative reaches its conclusion with the speaker noting, upon this fool’s death, how he entered the inner chamber of the fool’s library and delved to the bottom of his ‘olde chest’ (sig. C4v) to find a number of dreams that the deceased had set down in poesy. This epistolary voyage is, then, only complete once the tour of a foreign wit’s pastoral dreamscapes has been presented to the reader.

[10] We are made aware that the fool’s poetry which ‘fitted the humour of his noddle pate’ is ‘left for a Legacie to his cousins Loblollies’ (Breton 1622: sig. C4v). This seemingly absurd poetic legacy is realised in the recital of eleven contemplative verse fables written in iambic heptameter. Each poem features the interaction between two types of different animals (for example, a monkey and bee), and although the fool’s sleep is punctuated by ‘laughing at the sport’ that a duck and goose make (sig. D2r, l. 18), or is perturbed by the ‘musicke’ (sig. D3r, l. 11) that a peacock and an ass create in unison, no particular conclusion or moral judgement is made by the fool himself upon these episodic dreams. Only at the end of the poetic sequence, after forests, fields, rivers, brooks, and the occasional dunghill have been psychologically traversed, does the fool seem to reflect on the meaning of his dreams via the death of ‘a great wilde Bore’ (sig. D3r, l. 1) at the hands of ‘Huntsmen’ (sig. D3r, l. 14) and their ‘mastiues’ (sig. D3r, l. 16): ‘Wherewith I wakt, and marueld what this kind of hunting meant’ (sig. D3r, l. 18). The fool’s thoughts on this matter are, however, left without comment.

[11] Attempting to provide a rationale for the implicit meaning of this dream sequence may, at first, be rather problematic. As Garrett Sullivan observes, sleep and dreaming in this period were often equated with both the binding of the senses and the overindulgence of them:

In the case of sleep-as-sensory binding, reason is literally disabled as the body slumbers; in that of sleep-as-sensory-overindulgence, reason fails to assert authority over a body whose intemperance manifests itself during both sleep and waking. (Sullivan 2012: 18)

Such scenarios may be illustrated in the prophetic, passionate, and supernatural dreaming of Philisides and Gynecia in Books two and three of Sidney’s ‘old’ Arcadia, in addition to the ‘dreame of loues and lustful play’ (I.1.47.4) which leaves the Redcrosse Knight ‘straight benumbd and starke’ (I.1.44.5) and the ‘wastefull luxuree’ (II.12.80.8) of Verdant’s eroticised slumber in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Adhering largely to a classical Platonic notion of ‘wild’, ‘unruly’, and ‘lawless’ (trans. Waterfield 1993: 571c and 572a) pleasures being roused from the particular material qualities and moral disposition of a person in sleep, the actions of these dreamers to their dreams would seem to justify Sullivan’s proposition that ‘sleep is a time where the operations of reason are suspended’ (Sullivan 2012: 51) marking the limit of one’s ability to control the power of the appetites or passions.

[12] The threat of ungoverned passions and the formation of portentous dreams of personal and political significance that pervade Sidney’s ‘old’ Arcadia or Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are, however, amiss in many of Breton’s works which employ dreams as narrative devices, especially in Strange News. Nor do they conform to the predictive dreams that early modern dream theorists such as Julius Caesar Scalinger explicate while examining the Aristotelian tradition of dream interpretation in his 1533 work New Epigrams (Haugen 2007, 820-21). Neither do they adhere to the divine or politically portentous dreams which Thomas Hill explores in The Most Pleasant Art of the Interpretation of Dreams (1571). More exactly, Breton’s Strange News out of Divers Countries culminates in a series of episodic dream-poems which linger on the frequently violent relationship between beasts and animals, without providing the moral maxims or axiomatic statements often expected from the fable genre. The foolish poetic dreamer is always at an advantageous position to be entertained or titillated from the frequently violent interaction between the animals, avoiding any psychic harm from the episodes; he merely views, rather than interacts.

[13] Although these dreams lack any divine import, they are not merely fanciful or nonsensical in nature – these fictive dreams may be interpreted as oblique, satirical commentaries on the iniquitous nature of human relationships. For instance, ‘A Dreame of a Chough, a Pie, and a Parot’ details the dangers of sartorial extravagance via a roguish parrot who is equated to one who gulls ‘giddie heads’ to ‘sell their lands’ (Breton 1622: sig. D1v, l. 18); whereas the ‘A Dreame of A Swan and a Goose’ seems to emphasise the consequences of both marital impropriety and the transgression of class boundaries through a tale of an adulterous Swan. The sequence ultimately seems to be bound together through the reiterated topoi of retributive violence enacted upon or by each individual group of animals mentioned, as well as the schadenfreude that the fool derives from these creations of his mind. Instead of being shown a developing mental landscape which expands as the poetic protagonist thinks, reflects, and journeys onwards through their own mind, the reader’s passage through Strange News is gradually funnelled through successively narrower architectural confines. It begins with a consideration of the quality of this reportedly strange land, to then delineate the fool’s abode, library, and then finally his chest as a means to understand the ‘humour of his noddle pate’ (sig. C4v) through an analysis of his dreams. Its narrative arc is directed towards introspective obscurity, rather than on an illuminating expansion on the quality of mental experience. Moreover, unlike ‘The Blessed Weeper’ and Workes of a Young Wyt, the dreams of Strange News are utilized in misanthropic fashion, rather than being deployed for morally virtuous purposes.

[14] The topics of mind-travel, dreaming, and personal introspection are fundamental to Breton’s writing, and these features, as witnessed in Strange News, often converge in rather peculiar ways. A Floorish upon Fancie and The Toyes of an Idle Head (1577) centres upon depicting another voyage into the poet’s mind itself. The narrative thrust of this piece is directed toward analysing the unknown qualities of the human psyche. Like ‘The Blessed Weeper’, A Floorish upon Fancie is didactic in method, though instead of instructing women readers to be pious and penitent in their lives, A Floorish upon Fancie wishes to instruct ‘young gallant youthes’ who are ‘rather addicted to trauaile through the world’ to direct their minds along a path of wisdom so they may attain ‘perfect Paradise’ (Breton 1577: sig. A2r). It details how they should take some time to ‘sit at home’ in order to attain ‘wisdome’, instead of looking to travel the world for their ‘owne advancement’ (sig. A2r). By providing a cautionary tale of his own inadvertent adventure into the realm of poetic creation (Fancie), the narrator attempts to persuade any potential reader to employ their reason if they plan to voyage around the world in order to attain ‘the fort of fame’ (sig. A3v).

[15] The poetic speaker prefigures his tale by describing how any potential student of the text may interpret ‘eche point’ contained within it, in addition to the narrative itself, as being inspired by one of the ‘maisters’ of poetic art – ‘fancy’ (Breton 1577: sig. B1r). Taking this intermediary role between master and student, the speaker conveys how the content of the text should adhere to what is expected from its title (‘The Schoole of Fancie’), otherwise, as he suggests, his ‘minde from reason greatly swerues’ (sig. B1r). Breton uses poulter’s measure, alongside a jocular instructive tone, to convey the subsequent treacherous and lugubrious meanderings the speaker has had to take through his own psyche – travelling to and exploring ‘school of fancie’ (sig. B1r) to then journey over ‘Harebraine Hyll’ by the thicket of ‘wild and wanton will’, past the ‘Lodge of luckelesse Loue’ to ‘the Fort of Fancie’ (sig. B5r), where he eventually meets Fancie’s servants, her fool, and the queen who presides over the injurious part of his mind. This journey into the psyche is constructed to highlight how indulging in one’s own creative fancy and ‘wordly vanitie’ (sig. C3v) will result in the destitution of the mental faculties as well as the financial poverty of any aspiring gallant or writer. Instead, seeking ‘perfect pietie’ (sig. C3v) should be the goal of any ‘younge gentilmen’ (sig. A2r) who might read this text.

[16] Much of the poetic ‘art’ (sig. B1r) of the poem and the succeeding section of the book, Toyes of an Idle Head, adheres to this densely alliterative alternation between fourteeners and alexandrines. It is unsurprising that at this early stage of Breton’s career that his verse forms seem to draw upon, in Brennan’s terms, the ‘outdated style of versifying’ of his stepfather, George Gascoigne which is ‘heavily dependent upon laboured alliterative effects and narrative prose links between poems’ (Brennan 2004). The alliterative and assonantal traits of the poulter’s measure that Breton utilizes may be indeed associated with older forms of literary artifice from sixteenth-century English psalm tradition, of which Gascoigne was an integral part (Hamlin 2004: 116). The possible mnemonic benefit of his highly alliterative verse form for those wishing to learn from this cautionary tale would seem to complement the work’s morally didactic function, but the metrical form of this text is not simply a sign of archaism: it represents a popular, if common, facet of Tudor poetic aesthetics (Munro 2013, 118-19). While Henry Howard’s ‘Psalm 55’ of 1547 is noted as one of the earliest instances of this verse form being employed in English, the contributors to Songes and Sonettes or Tottel’s Miscellany (1557) regularly utilize poulter’s measure (Hollander 1988: 170; Warner 2013: 121). Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney also employ this form for the first time in the Shepherd’s Calendar (1579) and ‘old’ Arcadia (1580). Through this popular verse form, Breton explicitly denigrates his own poetic powers, questioning the efficacy of his own verse to instruct and delight. On the other hand, A Floorish Upon Fancie’s rhetorical framework, which is indebted to his reluctant and injurious relationship to his poetic muse of fancy, may implicitly highlight the deleterious effects that his creative relationship to Gascoigne has had on his verse. Nevertheless, A Floorish Upon Fancie’s on-trend aesthetic form and its unique dedication to exploring the topography and nature of the psyche in verse for the benefit of those who would read and study its content, should be understood as a notable part of the flurry of poetic innovations within the mid to late sixteenth century.

[17] A similar instructive purpose informs Breton’s later heterogeneous collection of poetry and prose, The Wil of Wit (1597). Where The Wil of Wit may lack the descriptive richness attributed to the pastoral landscapes in Strange News out of Divers Countries, or the architecture of the mind portrayed in A Floorish upon Fancie, its prolonged examination of the psyche and the internal faculties does provide another intriguing and important example of Breton’s interest in the human mind.

Navigating the Mind in The Wil of Wit

We must probe right down inside and find out what principles make things move; but since this is a deep and chancy undertaking, I would that fewer people would concern themselves with it (Montaigne 2008: 380)

[18] Contrary to Montaigne’s (ironical) wish that fewer people would concern themselves with investigating the nature of volition, concepts of the will were abundantly used to help conceive of, and subvert, models of psychic and moral order in early modern England.[2] Our mental life, according to Thomas Wright in The Passions of the Minde in Generall (1621), should be directed towards eradicating sin – we must ‘chasten’ our body in order to ‘bring it into servitude’, but to do so we must first understand how our passions may corrupt our souls (Wright 1621: 5). Wright directs the reader to consider how every person may know ‘the nature of his enemies, their stratagems, and continuall incursions, even unto the gates of the chiefest castell of his soule, I meane the very witte and will’ (5). In this exploration of the potential attacks upon the ‘castell of the soul … the very witte and will’, we are invited to contemplate the body as the soul’s repository, and the soul as a unified object. Wright proposes a conception of the soul based upon an architectural metaphor (this ‘castell’) which suggests order, hierarchy and structural integrity. Our wit and the will are seen as the figureheads of this order, however the characteristics that Wright ascribes to the will actually serve to undermine the integrity of the soul’s proposed constitution.

[19] Wright’s largely Augustinian reading of the will proposes that it should both govern and be governed in order to protect the soul from the molestation of inordinate passions, that our will should play a crucial role in the moral temperance of the self, and that the will should impose authority and order in the subject even though it is vulnerable to external influence and is prone to be misled. The will is deemed to be equally powerful and vulnerable in such a state. The dialogue between Will and Wit in Breton’s The Wil of Wit thus provides a telling imaginative example of the period’s concern with trying to theorize and represent the higher faculties of the mind. Reflecting on the necessitous function that the faculty of the will takes in the individual is vital for Breton’s work – it is not simply eradicated from the moral subject, or typified as a fatal component of its internal constitution as we witness through a similar, albeit fleeting, dialogue in Philip Sidney’s ‘old’ Arcadia:

R.           Your will is will; but Reason reason is.
P.           Will hath his will when Reason’s will doth miss.
R.           Whom Passion leads unto his death is bent.
(OA, Book II, ‘The Second Eclogues’, 119).

The reconciliation portrayed between Reason and Passion in the Arcadia conveys how ‘the rational faculties as equal to the passions’ and that ‘the two are in constant need of each other’ (Steenbergh 2009: 184). Control over the will is vital to operational harmony and peace between these personified faculties of the self. The power that the will has to determine the fate of the individual is similarly accentuated in The Wil of Wit, though it is not so quickly or easily achieved in Breton’s work; the chivalric romance, bucolic detail, and swift reconciliation which underpins the dialogue between the shepherds of Reason and Passion is missing from the Wil of Wit. Even within Breton’s attempt to explicate through a prolonged dialogue between Will and Wit, it still remains unclear whether the intellect or the will is to govern the ethical telos of the human subject.

[20] The Wil of Wit, Wits Will, or Wils Wit is comprised primarily of six discrete discourses.[3] The work as a whole is unified by a common advocacy of moral temperance, conveying this message by emphasising the importance of companionship for the human subject to achieve ethical purity. It depicts the turbulent relationship of the human subject’s internal faculties in a mode reminiscent of Tudor Interludes such as Wealth and Health (1557), The Marriage of Wit and Science (1570) and The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom (1579), though rather than offering a relatively crowded and comical psychomachia which is grounded upon promoting a humanist ethical ideal, The Wil of Wit features only two internal faculties to further its own sustained and detailed reflection upon the nature of the individual’s mind. This exploration of the human subject’s psyche relies upon the notion of self-voyage, but unlike Floorish upon Fancie, it depicts a world almost completely devoid of detail or setting. Sole focus is placed upon the operative relationship of the wit and will of the human subject which, in turn, leads to the discovery of how they constitute and are constituted by mental space. Their subsequent exploration of the mind fittingly troubles the coherence of its organisational structure. As Breton pronounces in the introductory poem to the work as a whole, Wit and Will’s work is to be ‘agreede’ for the proof of ‘good Bretons will’ (Breton 1597: sig. A4r): these two powers must operate together for the benefit of the human individual so as to provide a lesson on temperance and equality that the reader should come to understand in Wit and Will’s ensuing discussion. Their relationship, delineated for the reader through an in utramque partum dialogic mode, is in fact characterised in Breton’s text by ambiguity instead of operational unity.

[21] We are introduced to the structure of Wit and Will’s inner-world initially through Will’s opening lament, where he reflects on the condition of his own psyche without his companion, Wit:

Longe have I travelled, much ground have I gone … Oh my wit, I am from my Wit, and haue beene long. Alas the day. I haue bin almost madde, with marching through the world, without my good guide, my freende, and Companion, my Brother, yea, my selfe. Alas, where is hee? When shall I see him? How shall I seeke him, and whither shall I walke? I was too soone wearie of him, and am now weary of my selfe without him. (Breton 1597: sig. B1r)

Will laments the absence of Wit since the only sense of self Will can envision at this juncture is one that involves his companion, his ‘guide’. Being reunited with Wit would provide a remedy for the misery Will feels in this state of functional suspension, yet, the emptiness Will feels only occurs because of his decision to follow a path without the aid of his Wit. Will recognises this deficiency in his allegorical constitution when he acknowledges that his own ‘wit’ suffers from the disconnection from his brother ‘Wit’, leading Will to question his own sense of purpose.

[22] Fortunately, Will soon finds Wit, and they proceed to engage in a conversation which details how they came to be separated at the ‘Well of Wisdome’ (Breton 1597: sig. B2r), and how Will was saved from the ‘Ditch of Despair’ within a ‘wilderness of woe’ by the aged character, Experience (sig. B2r). Journeying alone, Will only managed to venture down a ‘straye pathe’ (sig. B2v) – the character of Experience eventually leads Will to recognise the folly in his actions and entreats Will to seek Wit out. By reuniting, Wit and Will may reach their ultimate and rather abstract goal of ‘paradise’ (sig. B3r), but what they would do afterwards or how they would achieve their reconnection is left unaccounted for by Experience and Will alike. If we are supposed to use this discourse to help us reflect upon the intended temperance of our own wisdom and desire, the obscure correlation between these two characters of Wit and Will does not help matters. We do, fortunately, receive a more rounded account of what this paradise entails when Wit explains to Will how he was separated from his kin.

[23] Wit mentions that they had both been travelling from ‘Fancie’s Forte’ but had parted from Will in the ‘Lane of Learning’, and had subsequently tried to reach the ‘Fort of Fame’ (Breton 1597: sig. B3v). In this respect, The Wil of Wit may stand as a development of the mental journey that had been undertaken twenty years previously by the speaker of A Floorish Upon Fancie, where the speaker describes the structure of ‘the fort of fame’ (Breton 1577: sig. A3v) as well as the mental anguish he suffered in his journey to this destination. Attaining true wisdom and fame are still deemed to be positive objectives in The Wil of Wit, as well as being loci which cannot be achieved by the sole power of one’s wit. Even though Wit actively explored and revelled in an idyllic region of the mental world while lost, he was still greatly affected by Will’s absence: ‘Oh, there was a place of pleasure: if in the world there bee a Paradize, that was it: Oh that thou haddest beene with mee’ (Breton 1597: sig. B4r). In spite of Will previously describing his need of Wit to achieve Paradise, it seems that Wit had apparently found it by himself without the aid of Will at all (albeit he wishes that his brother were there to experience it with him). Although this would imply that Wit would be able to achieve bliss without Will, Wit is extremely perturbed by this situation and does not enjoy paradise for what it should be, suggesting that paradise for these two faculties can only be achieved when both Wit and Will work in harmony.

[24] By the conclusion of this lengthy dialogue, Will argues that the blame for their separation lies in Wit’s hands: ‘wil had beene good, had not wit beene bad: wil had not lost wit, had wit lookt vnto him: Wil would doo well, if wit woulde doo better: wil woulde learne, if wit woulde teache him (Breton 1597: sig. C2v). In these somewhat deferential sentiments, Will manages to consolidate the rift between himself and Wit. Both Wit and Will agree that their companionship must be upheld for both their sakes, mutually deciding to ‘bee merrie, shake hands, sweare company, and neuer part’ (sig. C2v). A final resolution is then made to seek out the aid of Care, in order to comfort the worst of woes: ‘the griefe of minde’ (sig. C4r). It would seem, then, that Wit and Will may facilitate each other’s happiness through due care and attention to each other.

The Will of Wit: The Subject Split
[25] Breton resolves this fittingly obtuse dialogue by illustrating how Wit and Will agree to work towards attaining virtue, encouraging the reader to work towards the ‘profit of themselves, and good example to others’ (Breton 1597: sig. D1v). Their final declaration is given to the reader (by Will) as follows: ‘From our heart … ingenii voluntas’ (sig. D1v). Ingenii voluntas: wit’s will, or the will of wit. The genitive case of the Latin noun ingenium (meaning the natural capacity of intelligence, or wit), here, shapes the syntax of the parting phrase. This sense of possession implied by the phrase’s syntax seems to eradicate the invitation given to the reader in the title of the text to ‘chuse you whether’. Indeed, the choice for the reader to determine which faculty is the possessor and which is the possessed informs the whole of the discourse, yet this opportunity for personal choice or judgement that is presented to the reader seems to be set at odds with the underlying didactic purpose of the work: Will is supposed to agree to obey Wit in order to achieve the good. It would seem that Will is in fact Wit’s possession after all, though no evidence is given to the faculties’ actual collaboration in the text, apart from this final agreement to collaborate. Their estrangement, as highlighted at the beginning of the discourse, is thus left relatively unresolved.

[26] Achieving the good is supposedly the Wit and Will’s primary goal, but the chief problem of Breton’s work is found in the attempt to represent the ‘will’ as a faculty of the human subject. Wit’s interrogation of Will’s parentage and reason for being only yields the fact that Will seeks ‘Content, by hooke or crooke’ because ‘the fates appoint it so’ (Breton 1597: sig. C3r). He lacks the ability to reflect on and justify his nature to Wit. Due to this failure of self-knowledge, Will professes to Wit: ‘Oh Lord that Will were wise’ (sig. C3r). Will, thus, only has a vague conception of why he exists, and only finds refuge in the realm of man’s mind once he agrees to follow Wit into his ‘closet of conceit’ (sig. D1v). They would then exist inside man’s mind within the sub-structure of Wit’s own personal space (his closet), but this only comes to be once Wit has convinced Will to stay with him. Will apparently has no natural home other than man’s mind in general. Further to this, both faculties are said to have come into existence through the power of their own dreams, even though they recognise that these dreams are ones that mankind has facilitated: Wit and Will were apparently in a state of dreamlike contemplation of their own existence until they ‘did awake with the fall’ (sig. C2r). The mind then houses Wit and Will, yet it is also depicted as a space in which these mental faculties may lose themselves within, and are generated from.

[27] Will’s pre- and post-lapsarian actions are made distinct from the wild and lawless nature of human dreaming as Plato outlines in The Republic. Their actions also diverge from the depiction of the ‘wild and wanton will’ found past the ‘Lodge of luckelesse Loue’ near the ‘Fort of Fancie’ (Breton 1577: sig. B5r) as previously depicted in A Floorish upon Fancie (1577). Instead of emphasising its ability to stimulate morally transgressive behaviour, Breton chooses to focus on Will’s apparent lack of reason as his primary negative attribute, even though Will displays enough acuity of mind to reprimand Wit extolling exceedingly banal adages like ‘Faint hart neuer woon faire Lady’ (Breton 1597: sig. C3v). Will states that such sentiments caused him to wander from Wit’s council in the first place. Wit’s predilection for romantic notions ironically proves him to have the more ‘rude will’ (Shakespeare 2012 [1597]: 2.3.24), in Friar Lawrence’s terms, than Will himself. This depiction of the will’s lack of connection to excessive or transgressive eroticism also subverts the normative depiction of this internal faculty as highlighted in a vast array of dramatic, poetic, and philosophical writing in the early modern period, as I have argued elsewhere (Clark 2016). Taking Will’s advice on board, Wit professes that he will aim to avoid such romantic sentiments: ‘Wee wil to Care, and intreate him, to lend vs his helpe, for without him in deede we shall make an ilfauoured ende’ (Breton 1597: sig. C4r). Although Will’s own operational lack is promoted throughout this discourse, his moral purity and use of reason is deemed to be crucial for his eventual alliance with Wit.

[28] If we read this discourse as promoting that the will desires the good to the extent to which the intellect offers it, Breton may be arguing that our own operations should be governed by the Wit. But how can the Wit operate without the will, as the opening of this discourse suggests: ‘what is Wit, without good will’? (Breton 1597: sig. A4r). The conclusion of the narrative and the didactic imperative of its opening are set at odds with the freedom of choice that the title of the piece suggests. Breton’s work also seems to propose that the good can only be achieved through harnessing the power of the will. Governing the human faculty of the will seems to be in the capacity of an individual’s wit, but it is the character of Will who assents to the terms that Wit offers in Breton’s work. Finding the will and harnessing it for the good is, crucially, only achieved by a will that is willing to be ruled by our intelligence, but this goal is put in jeopardy because of the inherently wayward nature of the will itself.

[29] The will, in this respect, is depicted as a part of the psyche which is vital to the formation of selfhood but is somewhat of a wandering vagrant in the mind or soul of the individual. Breton’s work also credits the wit and the will with governing the telos of our being, though there is deemed to be a tension between these faculties when working towards this virtuous end. Even if the human subject is judged not to have the power to achieve summum bonum without external aid (for example, God’s grace), the necessity of the will in directing the human agent towards a good and noble end is constantly stressed. We are presented, then, by The Wil of Wit with a segment of the psyche which is hypostatised in order to properly define its function, yet the will is placed in a position where its natural function, its wilfulness, must be negated or compromised for its ‘proper’ function as part of the virtuous self to be exercised. Thus, in his imaginative exploration of the psyche and its inner-workings, Breton conceives of the mind as a space which may generate its own disorder, and may only find purpose through the chance collaboration of a witless Wit, and an innocent and obedient Will.

Nicholas Breton: Psychonaut
[30]  Taking stock of Breton’s intricate and involved exploration of the mind and its workings, as suggested at the beginning of this article, may allow us to reconsider the value of his writing, especially when placed alongside other imaginative early modern literature which centres upon portraying figurations of mental space. What I have attempted to clarify is Breton’s interest in depicting the complexities of the human psyche in a variety of generic forms – ones which do not simply assume an overly erotic or soteriological discursive function, unlike the popular depiction of faculty psychology in early modern moral philosophy. His negotiation of the mind and its topography does not seem, in the examples given, to coalesce with the amatory poetic inflection of the mind’s spatial construction, as witnessed, for example, in Spenser’s Amoretti (1595): ‘Her temple fayre is built within my mind, / In which her glorious ymage placed is’ (Sonnet 22, ll. 4-7). Breton does not solely harness fashionable ideals of Platonic beauty and love to construct and shape the landscape of the mind, and his use of dreams also often lacks the erotic inflection usually associated with their literary deployment in the period. Rather, such fictive dream-visions, as discussed, may be used as narrative devices which serve a rhetorical function of self-deprecation, as well as a means to provide oblique satirical commentaries upon contemporaneous trends in courtly fashions and etiquette. Moreover, as opposed to constructing narratives which comment upon the general state of the mind, evidenced within Thomas Wright’s The Passions of the Minde in Generall and a plethora of other early modern moral and natural philosophy, works like A Floorish upon Fancie and The Wil of Wit offer comprehensive and sustained accounts of Breton’s own idiosyncratic imagined construction of the mind and its intriguing topographies. We must take seriously the conception and intricate depiction of mental loci found throughout his canon if we are to fully appreciate the diverse depiction of inner experience in the early modern literary tradition. Aligning Breton’s writing with contemporary work on cognitive ecologies may be helpful to pursue this objective.

[31] A wide range of concepts, theories, and critical practices have sprung up from or have been aligned with the study of literature and the mind in recent years, such as philosophies of mind, cognitive studies, embodied cognition, and the concept of psychogeography. Although these critical approaches may not be entirely applicable to the texts discussed in this article, they do provide a helpful theoretical framework to understand Breton’s writing. The argument contained in David McInnis’ study Mind-Travelling and Voyage Drama in Early Modern England is particularly useful if we are to more fully define the discursive strategies of Breton’s work. Building on the use of distributed cognition theory which features in the work of Evelyn B. Tribble, John Sutton, and Bruce McConachie, McInnis suggests that ‘the early modern stage was a technologically advanced machine for imaginative travel’ that offered people a pleasurable ‘psycho-physiological experience of distant lands without leaving their home’ (McInnis 2013: 3 and 20).[4] Here, McInnis devises of the notion of ‘mind-travel’ to explain how the early modern theatre provided the pleasures and moral risks of ‘escapist travel’ (121) for its spectators. In a similar vein, Andrew Bozio’s work on embodied thought in early modern drama provides a historicized analysis of the theory of ‘cognitive ecology – that the mind is distributed across bodies, objects, and spaces – in order to suggest how drama represents and engages this spatialization of thought’ (Bozio 2015: 265). Redefining these concepts (the ‘spatialization of thought’ and ‘mind-travel’) in relation to the period’s poetry and prose, I suggest, may advance our understanding of the intellectual practices of the period, especially in relation to writers like Breton. Where McInnis uses ‘mind-travel’ expression to depict a kind of mental exercise, enabled by the voyeuristic nature of early modern theatre which leads to shaping the lived experience of pleasure within the human audience member, I, on the other hand, would propose that we may make good use of word ‘psychonaut’ to distinguish the type of prolonged and deliberate voyage made into the realm of the mind by writers like Breton.

[32] As noted in the OED, the two morphemes ‘psycho’ and ‘naut’ derive from the Greek soul or mind, and voyager or traveller, respectively. However, the current definition of the psychonaut stresses the use of psychotropic drugs to be involved in the potential voyage through the mind: altering an individual’s state of consciousness is crucial for this kind of exploratory voyage to occur. I propose that we give this term a new literary context – one distinct from the kind of correlation that it may potentially have with the literature of the British Romantics, or the Avant-Garde writings of the American and British Beat Generation. The term psychonaut may be appropriately applied to work like Breton’s, as it deals with the detailed exploration of the mind through the narrative devices of private contemplation and dreams without any connection to drug use, or, indeed, any form of extreme or delirious religious experience: a psychonautics fuelled by wit, instead of a chemical or divine hit. I contend that Nicholas Breton is an exemplary psychonaut, and that his oeuvre, as outlined above, reflects upon the nature of the mind by exploring the dynamic relationship between inner, mental experience and the spatialization of thought. Closets, chests, caves, forts, and schools provide material focal points by which to consider the pain, grief, disappointment, and frustration associated with the attempt to quantify the dynamic development of mental processes, when stimulated by sense experience and emotional affect. Breton’s imaginative explorations of the mind’s topography and internal architecture do also simultaneously emphasise the difficulty associated with the conceptualisation of thought. Travelling through the space of the mind ultimately highlights the significance of the illogical or inconceivable facets of the early modern psyche.

[33] ‘The Blessed Weeper’, A Floorish Upon Fancie, The Workes of a Young Wyt, and The Wil of Wit all represent telling examples of Nicholas Breton’s concern with trying to represent the attributes and internal topography of the psyche. This essay has considered Breton’s unique literary depiction of mental experience for the purpose of contributing to and advancing the scholarly understanding of early modern conceptions of mind. I have articulated how we may understand Breton’s literary exploration of the mind in relation to his contemporaries, providing a critical and theoretical framework that should prove useful to advance and further explore the wider cultural importance of his diverse articulation of inner experience and psychology in early modern intellectual culture, so as to help reconfigure the early modern literary landscape.

University of Exeter


[1] Two major attempts have been made to organise Breton’s canon: A. B. Grosart. 1879. The Works in Verse and Prose of Nicholas Breton. Vol. I and II (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), and Jean Robertson. 1952. Nicholas Breton: Poems not hitherto reprinted. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press). Other notable editions of Breton’s work can be found in U.K. Wright. 1929. A Mad World my Masters and Other Prose Works by Nicholas Breton: Vol. I and II (London: The Cresset Press), and H.E. Rollins. 1936. The Arbour of Amorous Delights by Nicholas Breton and Others, 1597 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). No complete edition of Breton’s canon exists to date. [back to text]

[2] See also “On Restraining Your Will” in Book 3 of the Essays. Other examples include: William Baldwin, A Treatise of Morall Phylosophie (London: 1547); Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (Oxford: 1621); Pierre Charron, Of Wisdome: Three Bookes (London: 1608); Haly Heron, A New Discourse of Moral Philosophy (London: 1579); Richard Hooker, Of Lawes Ecclesiastical (London: 1604); Phillipe De Mornay, The True Nature of Man’s Owne Self (London: 1602); Juan Luis Vives, An Introduction to Wisdome (London: 1544).[back to text]

[3] The Wil of Wit forms the opening section of this work. The other parts are: The Authors Dreame; The Scholler and the Souldiour; The Miseries of Mauille; The Praise of Women; A Dialogue between Anger and Patience. [back to text]

[4] See: Bruce McConachie. 2008. Engaging Audiences: A Cognitive Approach to Spectating in the Theatre (New York: Palgrave Macmillan); John Sutton. 2012. ‘Porous Memory and the Cognitive Life of Things’, in Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History, eds. Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, and Alessio Cavallaro (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press); Evelyn B. Tribble. 2011. Cognition in the Globe: Attention and Memory in Shakespeare’s Theatre (New York: Palgrave).[back to text]


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Slanderisation and Censure-ship: When Good Texts Went Bad in Early Modern England

Slanderisation and Censure-ship: When Good Texts Went Bad in Early Modern England

Steven Veerapen

[1] In 1653, the playwright, poet and antiquarian Arthur Wilson’s The History of Great Britain, being the Life and Reign of King James I was published. The text included a reflection on what had become an axiom of political culture in the Stuart age: that poetry and libel had an interdependent relationship. To Wilson,

peace begot plenty, and plenty begot ease and wantonness, and ease and wantonness begot poetry, and poetry swelled to that bulk in his time, that it begot strange monstrous satires against the King’s own person, that haunted both court and country. (Wilson 1653: 289-90)

Wilson’s jaundiced view of poetry seems fanciful; yet the rise of the verse libel in the Stuart era is well documented. Not only do legal reports of the early modern period recognise the problematic growth of libel, but recent scholarship has made significant inroads in tracing the blossoming of verse libels as a distinct and multifaceted cultural mode, often containing licentious accounts of individuals or political events (Hawarde, Reportes: 143). Indeed, the developing vehicle of the verse libel rapidly became, as Andrew McRae notes, a recognised feature of political and literary culture in the Stuart age (2004a: 1). These often pithy little poems were naturally anathema to the law, not least because they were characterised by their invariably anonymous manuscript circulation. Anonymity itself proved to be an extremely useful means of circumventing legal reprisal, and explosive libels ‘were at one and the same time both written and spoken, simultaneously oral and textual’; and yet the relative success of adopting anonymity as a means of circumvention was not one with which Elizabethan slanderers were routinely armed (Fox 1994: 65). Instead, it emerged gradually, and was met with a flexible legal system that was willing to prosecute anyone who could be found to have knowledge of material deemed seditious or slanderous, whether they were its creators or not.

[2] However, Alastair Bellany has noted that ‘our understanding of the verse libel’s genealogy is hazier than it should be’. In order to understand the rise of these texts, which were so problematic to the Stuart regime (and worthy of exasperated recognition by Wilson), it is useful to consider the varied means by which slanderous, libellous and seditious discourses were disseminated and countered during the pre-Stuart period (Bellany 2007a: 1165). Although Wilson’s view might suggest a pre-Jacobean world of harmony and industry, this was demonstrably not the case. Rather, libel and slander flourished in the Tudor political and domestic spheres, notwithstanding the nascence of the formalised, anonymous verse libel. Indeed, the blossoming of this particular form is arguably a product of pre-Stuart experimentation involving various means of disseminating slanderous discourse, as well as the testing of the power of authority to curb dissent.

[3] Slander (also known as libel, as no distinction between written and spoken words yet existed in law) referred in the period to words spoken with malicious intent before a third party which resulted in the demonstrable loss of reputation, credit or trade. In order for words to be slanderous, they had to be ‘actionable’ – that is, if one wanted to sue someone for saying them, one had to be able to demonstrate before the law that loss had been incurred as a result of the words spoken. If accused of slander, one could plead the truth of the words spoken (provided it could be proven), or else plead misinterpretation, with the principle of mitior sensus (literally, the least sense) inviting an increasing number of defendants to claim that their words had been intended without malice. This principle itself gained currency in the court of Common Pleas in the 1570s and 80s and sought to stem the flow of actions for slander by maintaining that ‘no action should lie if the words could be construed in a milder sense’ (Habermann 2003: 45). Sedition occurred when words spoken incited rebellion or ‘brought into hatred’ individuals of higher social standing, whether a breach of the peace was intended or not. It is tempting to think that these words had to be false in order to be slanderous, but in the period there was a hardening of legal opinion which resulted in the belief that true slanders against superiors were worse than false slanders, because they laid bare the faults of an ordered society and incited disorder. During the reign of Elizabeth, litigators and judges grappled with a variety of laws and statutes in punishing slander, and it was not until the subsequent reign that Edward Coke was to provide a definitive common law remedy (known as seditious, or criminal, libel), which took the opportunity to clarify ideas and autocratic beliefs about slander, sedition and libel, the proper prosecution of which had been the cause of vexation throughout the previous reign. Thus the 1605 birth of the common law crime of ‘seditious libel’ brought together the laws of slander and sedition, linking the speaking and writing of defamatory words, whether true or false, with disorder and malice. This has led Roger Manning (1980: 100-101) to recognise that, in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, ‘it was not necessary for seditious utterances or writings [against the reputations and/or actions, public or private, of public officials, magistrates and prelates] to be published, and if the facts alleged were true, that only made the offence worse, since a true slander was more likely to cause a breach of the peace than a public one.’

[4] In practice, the law and its agents were less than blind in their dispensing of justice. Plebeian disputes involving injurious words spoken between neighbours were treated by the book – truth was an acceptable defence and the rule of mitior sensus was encouraged by judges eager to stem the flow of frivolous lawsuits. In more serious cases, however, the terms ‘slander’ and ‘sedition’ became catch-all terms for any language deemed inappropriate, contentious, unlicensed or illicit, regardless of its intent or the actual losses incurred as a result of its reaching a third party. Further, authorities were keen to find and prosecute anyone involved in the production and dissemination of any material they deemed slanderous. As a result, original writers, publishers, owners of manuscripts or even those simply repeating words they had heard could find themselves at the mercy of what we might term ‘language laws’, which ranged from the statute of Scandalum Magnatum to felony statutes, proclamations against certain books, the crime of seditious libel and the tort of slander. Indeed, the statute of Scandalum Magnatum – which can be traced to 1275, and provided for the punishment of those who spread defamatory rumours about important personages of the state – was re-enacted with changes in the second year of Elizabeth’s reign (Milsom 1981: 388). John Baker (2002: 437) notes that the statute was designed to prevent discord between classes, ‘but the purpose of an action on the statute was clearly to vindicate the magnate’s name by recovering damages’.

[5] Particularly during the reign of Elizabeth, various techniques of deploying libellous and seditious speech (whilst simultaneously attempting to evade punishment) existed. Poets, critics, and those who sought to use transgressive language attempted to benefit from the slipperiness of the law. Some sought to adopt the rhetoric of counsel. Notoriously unsuccessful attempts to frame speech castigated as ‘slanderous’ as conciliar attempts to advise the government can be witnessed in John Stubbes’ The Discoverie of a Gaping Gulf (1579), and A Treatise of Treasons Against Q. Elizabeth and the Croune of England (1572). Others invoked the classical provenance of satire. Here Alastair Bellany (2007b: 156) recognises John Donne’s appreciation of the form when handled correctly, and Pauline Croft (1995: 272) notes that the work of classical satirists was beginning to circulate around literary London. Aiding such efforts were illicit presses, with perhaps the most famous example of Elizabethan usage of illicit printing presses being the Martin Marprelate affair of 1588-9. Arguably, this celebrated episode provided lessons to would-be slanderers in the difficulties of maintaining presses outside the ambit of authorities, whilst also providing evidence that anonymity and pseudonymity (later key ingredients of verse libelling) were an invaluable means of eluding authority.

[6] Still others attempted to take advantage of the porous nature of censorship, and as a consequence the study of early modern censorship has long provided fertile ground for disagreement between scholars. Theories of censorship can be found in, amongst others, in the work of M. Lindsay Kaplan (1997); Janet Clare (1999); Cyndia Clegg (2004); Debora Shuger (2006); and Annabel Patterson (1984). Ultimately, what emerges is a sense of censorship being a loaded term that is largely unhelpful in understanding any distinct legal process or approach to legislating and controlling language. Further, it is one which no longer seems suitable in historicising events and outbreaks of transgressive language which can comprise the destruction by authors of their own work; the judicial trials of slanderous malefactors; the unknown excisions of texts by government officials; the conscious or unconscious regulation of spoken, written and printed language by those living in a litigious society; the state licensing (or non-licensing) of texts; and a slew of other procedural, cultural and legal processes.

[7] However, one method of evading legal reprisals for dissenting, slanderous or seditious speech that has gone largely unexplored is what we might begin to term ‘slanderisation’: the appropriation of outwardly innocent, licensed, or even ostensibly-edifying texts with slanderous or malicious intent, particularly at moments in which circumstances or political events can give them an unpleasant gloss. As a definition, one might think: ‘when good texts go bad’. The very innocence of the language of such texts allowed – in theory – their deployment to be defended on the simple, legal grounds that the speaker did not write them; they were neither actionable nor legally defamatory and they may even have been fully licensed by the state previously. Further, the use of slanderisation may be seen in various walks of Elizabethan life, with religious, musical and dramatic texts engaging with the use of seemingly innocuous compositions for scurrilous purposes.

[8] It is well-established that the early modern period coincided with a cultural, legal and historical fascination with precedent and the reading of contemporary events in existing texts, histories and legal cases – indeed, the common law itself was a justice system built on precedent, as Rosemary O’Day illustrates via her provision of a useful list of the means by which ‘precedent books’ were utilised in law teaching, with ‘one volume [used] for each major kind of case – case, trespass, slander, promises, nuisances, etc. (2014: 167-8).’ This led to what Johanna Rickman has described as a legal system that constituted a ‘contentious … ongoing cultural dialect’ rather than ‘a static background’ against which people lived their lives (2008: 15). Similarly, we know that there were anxieties surrounding the way in which texts might be received. One can turn, for example, to the notorious case of Fulke Greville’s manuscript Antony and Cleopatra (c1600-01). Written for a carefully limited, elite coterie, the play was nevertheless committed to the flames by Greville himself due to concerns raised

by the opinion of those few eyes which saw it, having some childish wantonness in them apt enough to be construed or strained to a personating of vices in the present governors and government. (Greville 1986 [1625]: 93)

Greville’s actions suggest, to Janet Clare a ‘climate of fear and caution’ (which is somewhat difficult to reconcile with the proliferation of slander with which the period coincided; if people were fearful of legal reprisals, it did not prevent them exercising their tongues, as the volume of litigation attests [Brooks 1998: 23-24; Clare 2014: 13]). Yet misinterpretation was not just a danger to be fearfully guarded against. It could be a welcome tool for slanderers who might rely on material being read with a contemporary, defamatory gloss, but who could then hope to use ‘misinterpretation’ as a mean of deflecting accusations of slander. Such individuals could simply place blame, as Greville more ingenuously did, on the wicked minds of the third party: the hearers. It is thus useful to shift our focus from the interpretation – or misinterpretation – of texts to those who took advantage of plurality of interpretation with the knowledge that audiences would not take things in mitior sensus. Significant also is what David Cressy (2010: 42) recognises as the tendency of early modern readers and listeners to believe libellous words; and it is a notion supported by one anonymous commentator on the Martin Marprelate affair, who remarked somewhat disdainfully that Martin’s ‘seditious libels made easy way into the hartes of the vulgar [because such people] were apt to entertaine matter of Noveltie especiallie if it have a show of restraining the authoritie of their Superiours’ (Black 2008: xxxii). Thus, slanderers or those with seditious intent might not have written the words they recited, nor even ‘caused them to be written’ (as was an ancillary accusation often levelled against those accused of reciting defamatory language), and this offers us the possibility of identifying a useful strategy of evasion. But have we evidence for this strategy being employed?

[9] The state church and its officials were masters of defining slander and sedition through their legal authority over language and their ecclesiastical right to condemn and punish slanders which pertained to moral and spiritual offences. However, this mastery extended to their slanderisation of Biblical texts in the pursuit of religious and political goals. Certainly this strategy was famously employed in early modern Scotland, where tensions between Church and monarch were more sharply drawn, particularly during the tenure of John Knox. Queen Mary’s censure-ship did not bear fruit, but her short-lived husband Henry Stuart had slightly more success in forbidding the cleric from preaching for fifteen days following a 1565 sermon that likened the monarchs to Ahab and Jezebel. In England, a 1569 sermon by the clergyman Edward Dering, who had been disgraced for his provocative preaching in the past, began with his casting the blame for his disgrace on ‘the slanderous tongues of many envious men’, before going on to preach the necessity of ‘the plain law of the Lord’. ‘This law’, Dering asserts, he ‘knows not how your Majesty shall interpret, because I know not your spirit’ (Dering 1971 [1569-70]: 139). The language is breathtakingly disingenuous; Dering’s attempt to lay blame for any potentially malicious interpretation of his allusions on the listener – the queen – is obvious. As he expounds vociferously on the Biblical precedents of ‘David disallowing wicked men in his house and Asa putting down idols’, we can see in practice a preacher simultaneously deflecting accusations of attacking the queen whilst tacitly inviting consideration of religious reform and professing not to know what constructions might be put upon his language. It is in such performances that we see in practice what M. Lindsay Kaplan recognises as the peculiar ‘boomerang effect’ of slander (Kaplan 1997: 90).

[10] This process of appropriating what is in this case an unimpeachably upright text with the express purpose of criticising existing policy was one which was understood by early modern English clergymen. However, it would be dangerous to overestimate the success of Dering’s strategy; as he notes in his sermon, he has ‘heard of how much your highness misliked of me’ (Dering 1971 [1569-70]: 140). In the absence of a realistic ability to ban or censor particular religious texts at impolitic moments, the disfavour of the queen might instead be considered a singular politico-religious indication of what was and was not condoned.

[11] Certainly Queen Elizabeth was ever apt to remind her preachers that they were her subjects. Peter McCullough recounts in particular the 1565 sermon of Alexander Nowell (against religious images), to which Elizabeth bluntly announced, ‘do not talk about that’ (1998: 47). Nowell attempted to continue his sermon, resulting in further interruption from the queen, who instructed him to ‘leave that – it has nothing to do with your subject and is now threadbare’. McCullough notes also the 1579 incident in which the queen pointedly turned her back on the pulpit when a preacher launched into a sermon attacking her mooted match with the Duc d’Alençon. Certainly, in a system in which was encoded a network of patronage and favour, those who sought preferment in public office could thus take their cue from royal reactions to particular textual allusions. As a consequence, we might consider the Elizabethan approach to ‘slanderised’ religious text as not censorship, but censure-ship. Governmental attitudes to what was and was not permissible did not have to be enforced by legal means or explicit diktats, but could rather be expressed through informal channels. Here was not brazen nonconformity, but resistance and criticism voiced in the language of conformity and expressed in the guise of wholesome religious texts, the preaching of which was one of the cornerstones of the Elizabethan religious settlement.

[12] Church figures’ deployment of otherwise acceptable texts in a deliberately provocative manner (and their subsequent ‘censure-ship’) do not, however, provide the only examples of the use of and reaction to slanderisation. In her comprehensive overview of the circulation of ballads in early modern England (2014), Jenni Hyde has recognised the extent to which the Tudor regime viewed the seductive language and attractive tunes employed by ballads as a potential menace. Interestingly, Hyde also recounts the case of a particular ballad’s seditious afterlife. ‘The Hunt is Up’ was a popular tune at the centre of court life during Henry VIII’s reign, with the earliest form of the text, attributed to William Gray, reading:

The hunt is up, the hunt is up,
And it is a well nigh day;
And Harry our king has gone hunting,
To bring his deer to bay.
(Gray 1533: 60)

Although the text appears fairly innocuous, the melody was appropriated by one John Hogon during the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1537, with lyrics added that complained ‘the masters of arte and doctors of dyvynyte / have brought the realme owght of good unite’ (Hyde 2014: 233). As Chappell and Macfarren recognise, Hogon’s alleged crime was failing to comply with a 1533 proclamation, which was issued ‘to suppress fond books, ballads, rhymes, and other lewd treatises in the English tongue’, by ‘singing with a crowd or a fyddyll’ a political song to that tune (1859: 60). Chappell and Macfarren’s study of the ballad’s history is illuminating. In addition to the legal circumstances of its 1537 appropriation by Hogon, the tune is also noted as being referred to as a good one for dancing in the Complaynt of Scotland (1549) and as having a number of parodic and theatrical afterlives. More pertinently, however, Chappell and Macfarren recognise that in the Hogon episode, ‘some of the words are inserted in the information [i.e. the Privy Council records], but they were taken down from the recitation and not given as verse’. The hesitance to proliferate slanderous material, even in the confines of the courtroom, can be found also in the proceedings of the Star Chamber. In a 1596 case, the Lord Keeper lamented that one libeller ‘made this Court (of such authority and state that [the Lord Keeper had] not heard nor read of the like in the world) an instrument to publish [and] record his blasphemies, and to have the nobles of the land from her Ma[jes]ties side, vpon whose sacred person they showlde attend, to hear his slanders and libels’ Ultimately, he ordered the depositions ‘to be withdrawn from the Courte’ (Hawarde, Reportes: 55).

[13] Evidently, ballads provided a genre capable of being mutated, repackaged and reworded according to the intentions of those spreading them. The slanderisation of this curiously universal genre therefore provides us with evidence that it was not just the original language of innocent texts that could prove a handy tool for those wishing to slander enemies and sow sedition, but musical arrangements and form. As Hyde further notes, ballads thus constitute ‘a sophisticated form of knowingness [that] could, on occasion, be created by … tune alone (2014: 237).’ It is no great leap to assume that a tune known for its associations with the royal court would, when misused, invite mocking criticism of the court itself. Popular melodies could therefore become laden with meaning and cultural associations, and that meaning could be manipulated via alteration of lyrics or usage in incongruous or sensitive situations. As Peter Lake and Steve Pincus remind us, ‘there were emerging protocols to be observed when having recourse to the politics of popularity, but they remained hazy and ill defined, and it was always horribly easy to fall over the edge into sedition’ (2007: 7). Hogon, in his appropriation of a popular melody in order to take advantage of its cultural associations, did not fall over the edge, but willingly leapt.

[14] In the case of ‘The Hunt is Up’, Hogon performed his version of the ballad in the homes of Robert Frances, John Kettleburgh and John Harlen, relying on the tune’s royal provenance to encourage criticism of Henry’s policies. However, his audience recognised his attempt at deliberately slanderising the popular tune and reported him to their local authorities. The men in his rural audience claimed to be unable to understand some of the veiled references in the song, and those references ‘served as protection for both parties: Hogon’s words did not become unmistakably seditious until they were explained and the Norfolk men could not be accused of troublemaking if they had not understood the meaning of the song without that elucidation’ (Hyde 2014: 234). The slanderisation of a musical piece, at least on this occasion, was confounded by the unwillingness of the audience to become complicit in enjoying the seditious overtones of its topical deployment. But nevertheless they were sufficiently aware of the manipulation of the tune to report it, and investigators were sufficiently aware of the propensity for musical ballads to have political repercussions to take action. As a method of resistance and dissent, slanderisation was, we might conclude, unsuccessful – but only insofar as Hogon had the misfortune of performing his slanderised version of ‘The Hunt is Up’ before an unreceptive audience.

[15] Yet the very fact that a musical piece – a fairly simple tune – could provide those looking to disseminate slanderous and seditious language with a vehicle is one which requires further consideration, for echoes of Hogon’s strategy can be found on the popular stage. In the anonymously-authored Thomas of Woodstock, the tendency of authorities to fret about the power of music in circulating dangerous speech is, seemingly, held up to ridicule. Although it has been argued that the play postdates Shakespeare, it is often speculated as being a source for Shakespeare’s Richard II (MacDonald P. Jackson: 2002). Central to the plot is the depiction of events in England prior to the murder of Richard’s uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, and the play includes the corrupt machinations of the king’s, favourite, Lord Chief Justice Tresilian. As Tresilian’s paranoia and avarice grow in inverse proportion to the civil liberties of the king’s subjects, Richard’s tyranny – as, typically, refracted through Tresilian – is highlighted in the actions of the favourite’s subordinates:

Nimble: Close again Master Bailiff, he comes another whisperer, I see by some – oh villain, he whistles treason! I’ll lay hold of him myself.

Whistler: Out alas, what do ye mean sir?

Nimble: A rank traitor Master Bailiff. Lay hold on him, for he has most erroneously and rebelliously whistled treason.

Whistler: Whistled treason! Alas sir, how can that be?

Bailiff: Very easily sir. There’s a piece of treason that flies up and down the country in the likeness of a ballad, and this being the very tune of it thou hast whistled treason.

Whistler: Alas sir, ye know I spake not a word.

Nimble: That’s all one: if any man whistles treason ‘tis as ill as speaking it. Mark me Master Bailiff, the bird whistles that cannot speak, and [yet] there be birds in a manner that can speak too: your raven will call ye [rascal], your crow will call ye knave, Master Bailiff. Ergo, he that can whistle can speak, and therefore this fellow hath both spoke and whistled treason.
(Thomas of Woodstock 2002, III.iii.1685-1701)

To Sandra Clark, this exchange depicts a police state under Richard II’s rule; to Irving Ribner, it underscores ‘the corruption of law … [and] the utter perversion of order in the tyranny of Tresilian and his men’ (2007: 97; 2005: 137). Neither reading, however, situates the text within its contemporary framework. The alacrity with which Nimble and the Bailiff are quick to identify the Whistler’s melody as treasonous, and in particular as flying ‘up and down the country in the likeness of a ballad’ would likely have struck Elizabethan audiences as entirely plausible, even if laughable. The Whistler’s protestations, too, take on a different complexion given what we know about slanderisation. Although his defence seems reasonable, it is just as possible that the character invites audiences – familiar with the power of melodies to carry seditious overtones – to consider whether he is really as uncomprehending as he claims. Of course, even if he is entirely innocent of the knowledge of the treasonous gloss attached to his tune, the problem faced by authorities remains: how can dissent be controlled when slanderisation brings with it plausible deniability? With this understanding, what seems like a caustic depiction of Richard II’s England actually encourages comparison with contemporary attempts to control discourse. If the ostensibly Plantagenet desire to find criminal activity in the whistling of a tune is thus held to be a ‘perversion of order’, then so too is the Tudor response to the slanderisation of ballads seen in the John Hogon episode.

[16] Adding weight to the notion that the Whistler’s defence is purposefully ambiguous is the preceding arrest of a Schoolmaster for writing a libel in verse against Tresilian. The illiterate bailiff, despite the Schoolmaster’s witty attempt at defending himself for his libel, is as quick to hear ‘the most shameful treason’ (III.iii.1671-2) as he is when he hears the ‘treasonous’ whistling. A number of issues arise from the zealous efforts of Nimble and the Bailiff. Firstly, as the Schoolmaster is guilty, a shadow is thrown over the Whistler’s use of a tune recognisable as seditious. The Whistler’s defence – that he had lost his calves and mistook the Bailiff and Nimble for them – is dubious, as is the apparent coincidence that he would chance upon the tune of a ballad which even the illiterate Bailiff recognises as having acquired seditious overtones.

[17] From Schoolmaster to cowherd, the willingness to give voice to and immediately deny dissent makes, as the Bailiff states, dangerous speech likely to fly ‘up and down the country’. It will also be noted that the Schoolmaster is engaged in reciting his railing rhyme (which he acknowledges as ‘little better than libels’ [III.iii.1630) to his serving man, with the suggestion thus made the lower orders are as eager to learn dangerous speech as their masters are to compose it. But here we must also recognise resonances of what Hyde has described as the ubiquity of the ballad as ‘experienced throughout society in homes and on the street, in cottages and at court, in taverns and at the theatre’ (2014: 34). The Schoolmaster’s use of unambiguous libel (despite his specious claims to the contrary) throws into doubt the protestations of ignorance by the whistling cowherd. Although the Bailiff, as a representative of authority, is portrayed as an illiterate buffoon, his instinctive willingness to ‘hear’ treason in the poetic words and tunes of others is less a mark of social perversion than an aggressively anxious reaction to a real problem. If the Whistler is innocent, he is damned not by the Bailiff and Nimble alone, but by the Schoolmaster’s willingness to libel authority and thus excite the instincts of autocrats; if he is guilty, his denial is plausible and audiences are invited to sympathise with a figure knowingly engaged in slanderising a text. Neither libelling nor overly zealous state responses to libelling emerge from the play as clear and unproblematic processes. If the England of Thomas of Woodstock is a police state, then it is a remarkably familiar one, containing many of the tensions between willing (and chancing) dissenters and frustrated, somewhat oversensitive authorities recognisable in the late-Tudor state. More likely, however, the humour of the scene suggests less a strictly authoritarian state (and less still Janet Clare’s ‘climate of fear and caution’), than a faintly ridiculous game of negotiation and exchange between dissenters and authorities, with deniability and stiff-necked refusal to accept deniability at loggerheads, especially during moments of crisis. If one recognises a climate of fear and caution in the play’s treatment of the Schoolmaster and the Whistler, it is on the part of the Bailiff and Nimble rather than the two slander-peddling citizens.

[18] Through its depiction of the arrests (and protests) of the composer of a libel and the whistler of a tune, Thomas of Woodstock illustrates the limitations of both verbal and melodic transmission of transgressive sentiments. As long as one made impermissible sounds – or, rather, words or noises which could be interpreted as slanderous or seditious – the potential existed for authorities to make an association with libellous or even treasonous activity. Yet music and verse were, quite clearly, effective (and popular, if tunes or words gained currency) ways of dissenting. As a consequence, it is perhaps unsurprising that the anonymous, handwritten verse libel became a means of voicing dissent without using one’s voice in the decades following the play’s composition.

[19] As Greg Walker and Henry James have noted, theatregoers were particularly apt to view events on the stage as having contemporary resonances (1995: 109-121). Furthermore, responding to Annabel Patterson’s study of censorship, interpretation and the relationship between poets and the state, Richard Dutton has noted that governments could not hope to regulate what people would think or link to a text to at any given moment (2000: xv). However, the corollary of this is that neither could malicious slanderers and seditionists, whose reliance on timeliness, topicality and unpredictable audience reception underpinned their opportunistic borrowing of texts. Nevertheless, what authorities could and did do was to seek to find the intent behind words recited at moments at which they judged them to become laden with unacceptable or potentially dangerous meaning. Slanderisation thus became an unstable, almost paradoxical process: the texts appropriated derived their scurrilous gloss from fleeting events, and yet fleeting events are what instigated authoritarian crackdowns on literary expression.

[20] This certainly seems to have been the rationale behind the Earl of Essex’s famous commissioning of Richard II’s performance immediately prior to his abortive rebellion in 1601. The play’s subject matter had been burdened with a history of contention, and interesting questions arise here about the censorship of non-dramatic historical works, and the extent to which this implies that early modern audiences were likely to consider history as analogous to contemporary events. Licensed historical texts could provide ready-made, popular conduits for commenting subversively on events, in essence acting as scripts which invited slanderisation. We should therefore not be surprised to find that more mechanised state censorship was occasionally used in the publication of historical material. Indeed, Cyndia Clegg (2014) provides a useful history of the (rather haphazard) censorship of Holinshed’s Chronicles, which is itself accepted as a source for Shakespeare’s Richard II. Yet the play itself had been fully licensed and entered into the Stationer’s Register in 1597; yet its performance on the eve of an uprising against the sovereign saw the players brought before the Privy Council for questioning. The fact that the company was soon released and apparently swiftly restored to royal favour is particularly interesting, raising as it does issues concerning the differing intent behind the performers and the commissioners of the production. Evidently, the inherent legality of the text, combined with the fact that the players recited it without malicious intent on their part, may have been sufficient for investigators to conclude that the actors’ performance of a text which had been in legal circulation for decades be taken in mitior sensus. The use of the legal rule applied in slander cases is deliberate. Censorship of the play had evidently failed to prevent its staging, and the laws of slander and libel did not apply to actors innocently reciting non-actionable words which had previously been endorsed by the state. Yet the fact that they were interrogated and their actions open to authoritarian scrutiny prevents us from concluding that the slanderisation of the text – at least on the part of Essex and his followers, who were the seditionists – proved successful.

[21] Interestingly, it might be argued that Shakespeare and his company were aware that the performance of play texts and their multiplicity of interpretations – whether innocent or subversive – was something to be recognised and guarded against. Casting blame for malicious interpretation on the interpreters rather than the speakers or writers was an invaluable, even a playful strategy. Puck’s speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream provides us with ratification of this, as he defends insubstantial, formless and motiveless actors.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearnèd luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue
(Shakespeare 1979 [1595], V.i.417-427)

In particular, we might note the subtle turning of blame for any offence on the ‘slumbering’ audiences, and Puck’s eagerness to escape the ‘serpent’s tongue’ – an image not far divorced from the tongues of evil-minded, slanderous misinterpreters, who were invariably conceptualised as being dangerously venomous. The perception of slander as a ‘poison’ was an enduring trope. Commentators such as Thomas Adams were apt to consider slander as a form of oral poison, which passed through the ear and corrupted the soul. Of more pressing concern was the notion that the audience could be ‘implicated in [a slanderous text’s] immorality’ (Bellany 2007b: 151). A hissing, hostile, offended audience thus makes itself the venomous slanderer – if, of course, we believe that Puck is honest and innocent of malicious intent. At any rate, Shakespeare recognised that theatrical audiences had the power to react negatively, and defence against negative reaction was required by those whose words – and, as we have seen, even whose use of music – could be construed in an actionable or otherwise scurrilous sense. Again we can identify a method of defence as being to deftly cast blame for slanderous interpretation on those who constructed it; but once again the slanderer finds himself in the position of having to make such a defence and ‘mend’ the suddenly hostile relationship between actor and audience. Once again, speaking publicly places power in the hands of the hearer, even if the speaker has a strategy in place to either ‘make amends’ or blame the hearer for a negative reception.

[22] Ultimately, these examples indicate that slanderisation was not, as it might be tempting to imagine, a safe or reliable way of evading either censorship or slander and sedition accusations, but it was certainly tested out despite the unpredictability of its reception. Thus we might consider the invitation for audiences to read defamatory, seditious and topical allusions to their contemporaries one of several methods tried prior to the introduction of the free press. Slanderisation failed if one could not trust one’s audience to be complicit and refrain from forcing an explanation of the meaning behind the words spoken. Nevertheless, the process of deploying outwardly innocuous texts with scurrilous intent erodes any comfortable understanding of censorship as an active programme focused on preventing unquestionably provocative or actionable speech. All texts – be they religious, literary or musical – have afterlives which may involve unexpected subversion for scurrilous or slanderous purposes – and this has implications for studies of censorship, legal development and literary history.

[23] Thus, we might return to Arthur Wilson’s recognition of the growth of verse libels and their indication of a subversive link between poetry and slanderous language. Having now witnessed the rather unreliable appropriation of innocent texts (religious, dramatic and musical) and their potentially hostile reception, it is clear that slanderisation was a method tested by early modern malcontents, and found lacking. As a result, we can glimpse another paving stone in the road to the popular Stuart verse libel. Yet it must be noted that these cases of singers, clergymen and players being caught or questioned are generally isolated or at least remarkable cases, usually due to their textual deployment reaching hostile audiences or the attention of authorities (which was obviously the point, particularly in the case of religious sermons, the subversive glosses of which were intended to inspire changes in religious policy). What we cannot know is how widespread this practice of slanderisation was at moments of political stability; bureaucratic inefficiency; legal relaxation; when audiences simply failed to interpret things in scurrilous ways; or even when they did but were sympathetic, and the intended double-meanings were kept quiet.

[24] Having thus recognised slanderisation as a process, we might ask a number of questions. Were innocent songs sung at politically-sensitive times in rural towns, with audiences secretly enjoying the naughty pleasure of interpreting them as slanderous? Were Biblical allusions made against the queen in prophesyings and sermons which have not yet been scrutinised with a view to assessing their potential scurrility? Were plays performed which mocked specific figures and events which are now obscure to us, and which went either unnoticed or unpunished? The answers to these questions are elusive. Yet it is nevertheless evident that although the process of slanderisation is recognisable from those moments in which it failed, this does not preclude it having been used successfully in ways which would, by virtue of that success, be unlikely to come to our attention via court records, governmental investigations or reports of royal displeasure. What these episodes do tell us is that using existing texts in order to invite slanderous interpretation was a risky business, and though it offered the potential avenue of innocent intent and not being the original author, neither were robust safeguards against censure-ship or intermittent authoritarianism. As long as one used one vocalised material, there were means by which authorities could apportion blame and punishment if that material found itself taking on a dark complexion.

[25] In order to build a fuller picture of the period’s relationship with transgressive language, it is crucial that scholars of early modern slander and censorship widen their scope of study beyond obviously slanderous and seditious texts and pay greater attention to the misuse of licit and innocuous texts – and even musical arrangements – for slanderous and seditious purposes. In a culture accustomed to the sensitivity of language and the legal repercussions of deploying explicitly proscripted speech and writing, it is necessary to consider the ways in which shifting and evolving legal and political circumstances could turn good language bad, as well as the opportunities afforded to individuals in twisting (or inviting alternative interpretations of) the meanings of innocent, licensed texts.

University of Strathclyde


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Shakespeare’s DNAs and the daughters of his house

Shakespeare’s DNAs and the daughters of his house

René Weis

[1] The extent to which Shakespeare’s life is reflected in his work remains a contested issue in Shakespeare studies and has done so at least since the Romantic period. Ever since readings of the Sonnets as a poetic diary of the poet’s turbulent emotional relationships with real people have been vigorously challenged. And yet at the same time it seems inconceivable that in the course of twenty years and some forty plays and poems Shakespeare’s own life would not bleed through into his works. An important caveat is to acknowledge that if there are clearly identifiable areas of overlap these do not therefore diminish the works or impose biographical readings on them. In a letter of 1819 Keats famously remarked that

A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory – and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life – a life like the scriptures, figurative – which such people can no more make out than they can the hebrew Bible. Lord Byron cuts a figure – but he is not figurative – Shakespeare led a life of Allegory; his works are the comments on it. (Keats 1970: 218)

Keats’s train of thought is a complex web of whimsical playing on figure and figurative while suggesting that the mysterious imaginative potential of each life, its hidden parable, needs be acknowledged. Some, he suggests, have the supreme gift to recognize and render the parable, foremost among them Shakespeare. For Keats, Shakespeare the private man from Stratford and Shakespeare the dramatist and poet are not separable, even if the link is allegorical and therefore not literally accessible. I propose going one step further than Keats and would argue that the connections are also literal. Why, for example, would Shakespeare pun on ‘Will’ the way he does in sonnet 135 (‘So thou, being rich in Will, add to thy Will | One will of mine, to make thy large Will more’) and conclude 136 with ‘Make but my name thy love, and love that still | And then thou lovest me, for my name is Will’ [emphases added] unless his name was indeed William?[1] To deny such a subjective, self-reflexive gesture by the speaker would seem to be counter-intuitive. Rather, there appear to be multiple overlaps between the life and work. This essay seeks to tease out some of the more striking links between Shakespeare’s literary and literal ‘DNA’. I will argue that identifiable, real life footprints in the works are complemented by the story of the Shakespeare family graves and that these in turn may cast new light on the women of the Shakespeare family and the mark they left on his works.

1. Literary DNA in the plays and poems
[2] At times the plays appear to refer demonstrably to real life events as, for example, in Gloucester’s ‘These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us’. It is hard not to see in this an allusion to the eclipses of 17 September and 2 October 1605, which would have been very recent (‘late’) at the time of the first act of King Lear, which was almost certainly written during the winter and spring of 1605-6, that is in the immediate wake of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605. The ‘Powder Plot’ (as it was known at the time) is itself directly evoked by the Porter’s drunken speech in Macbeth. Not only does he allude to the Jesuitical practice of using equivocation in their defence, but his reference to the farmer who hanged himself ‘on th’ expectation of plenty’ (2.3.4) is more specific than may appear at first sight, as ‘Farmer’ was the alias of the very person who was thought to have orchestrated the plot, Father Henry Garnett, whose grisly death outside St Paul’s Cathedral in May 1606 Shakespeare may echo in the blood-soaked imagery of Macbeth: ‘As they had seen me with these hangman’s hands’ (2.2.30).

[3] Political allusions in the drama of the period were not uncommon but potentially dangerous and in any case were bound to attract the censor’s interest. Shakespeare learnt that lesson the hard way with the near fiasco over the naming of Oldcastle, which resulted in the apologetic disclaimer of the epilogue of 2 Henry IV: ‘For Oldcastle died martyr, and this is not the man.’ (Epilogue, 28). Similarly, it is widely, though not universally, accepted that the reference in Henry V, to the ‘General of our gracious Empress’ returning from Ireland bringing ‘rebellion broachèd in his sword’ (Chorus 5.0.30-33), alludes to Essex’s contemporary campaign in Ireland (March 1599 – September 1599). The reference to the maverick earl may well account for the absence of the Act V chorus from the early printed texts of the play (it first appears in the First Folio, which may be based on Shakespeare’s 1599 foul papers), as Essex was in disgrace by the summer of 1600.

[4] The reason why Simon Forman does not mention the Porter’s scene after seeing Macbeth at the Globe Theatre on 20 April 1611 is because the scene was not staged: it had clearly been cut for performance. It survives in the only extant source text of Macbeth, which is printed in the 1623 Folio and probably derives from a scribal transcript of Shakespeare’s foul papers, with bits of Middleton’s 1616 The Witch grafted on to it. The fact that the play that Forman saw in 1611 and the 1623 Folio text are essentially the same suggests that Shakespeare’s surmised collaboration with Middleton on Macbeth was minimal, if it happened at all. Certainly the Folio syndicate seemed to think that the play was all Shakespeare’s even if they did allow incrustations from The Witch.

[5] But there are more intimate, personal echoes across the divide of life and literature, where the rhymes would seem to be not so much between history and the works but between Shakespeare the private individual and the plays and poems. The most intriguing of all these rhymes across the life / art divide is probably the reference to Richard Field in Cymbeline. When Imogen is asked her master’s name she replies with ‘Richard du Champ. If I do lie and do | No harm by it, though the gods hear, I hope | They’ll pardon it.’ (4.2.374-76) There is no doubt that the allusion is to the Stratford printer Richard Field (‘Champ’ is French for ‘field’ and Imogen in disguise is ‘Fidele’), Shakespeare’s senior by three years, who sixteen years earlier had printed his fellow Stratfordian’s Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. This mystifying gesture, probably an act of affectionate friendship, should put paid to any notion that Shakespeare’s work is ethereally disembodied from its author.

[6] Moreover, Shakespeare, the father of cross-gender twins wrote two comedies about twins, The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night. The first of these was staged before the poet’s twins, Hamnet and Judith, were ten years old while the second, Twelfth Night, was written and performed five years after the boy twin’s death. The Shakespeare twins were christened at Holy Trinity on Candlemas 1585 while Twelfth Night appears to have had its famous premiere on that very day (2nd February) in Middle Temple in 1602. This puts it, probably, right after Hamlet (c.1601) which may have been written during Shakespeare’s father’s last illness (John Shakespeare died in September 1601), if not immediately after his death. The timing of Shakespeare’s famous father-son tragedy, in close proximity to his own father’s death, would seem to be echoed in his mother-son play Coriolanus (1608): ‘O mother, mother! | What you have you done?’ says the play’s protagonists whose heroic deeds were all done, according to his detractors, to ‘please his mother’ (5.4.182-83; 1.1.32-33). The play, which alludes to the severe frost of 1607-8, was written the same year in which Shakespeare’s mother died, an unlikely coincidence.

[7] Nor is Hamlet the first of his plays to intersect allusively with Shakespeare’s life: his daughter Susanna was aged 13 in 1596, the probable date of Romeo and Juliet while the thirteen-year-old Juliet’s dead double, Nurse’s daughter, is another Susan. The name Susan is moreover unique to Romeo and Juliet. At least two other names in the works would appear to have been carried over from life. Thus Shakespeare’s wife Anne’s maiden name of ‘Hathaway’ may have found its way into Shakespeare’s poetry very early on. Sonnet 145, written uniquely in octosyllabic lines and, perhaps, a piece of callow juvenilia, perhaps a poem written by the teenage Shakespeare during his courtship of Anne Hathaway, concludes with the couplet ‘“I hate” from “hate” away she threw | And saved my life, saying “not you”’. Andrew Gurr (1971: 221-6) first noted that this short lyric might allude to Anne Hathaway in line 13, while Stephen Booth further thought that ‘And’ punned on the name ‘Anne. The poet’s later playing on his own name in sonnets 135 and 136 would suggest that he saw nothing strange in feeding private autobiographical information into his work, and particularly into poems that seem to be tantalizingly personal to the point where many have searched for confessional clues in them, notably with regard to the fair friend and the dark lady.

[8] Finally, and in a play contemporary with (probably) the writing of most of the Sonnets, the name of Emilia Bassano, mistress of Lord Hunsdon, who was patron of Shakespeare’s company, should be considered. This Venetian Jewish musician at court has been a favoured real life claimant for the Dark Lady of the Sonnets since A. L. Rowse first argued this in 1973 in Shakespeare’s Sonnets: the Problems Solved. Rowse’s theories about the Dark Lady and the ramifications of her presence in the Sonnets were called into question by Samuel Schoenbaum’s researches but they are not to be discredited self-evidently, contrary to Schoenbaum’s assertions (Schoenbaum 1970: 761-64). Rowse’s extensive use of Simon Forman’s diary when writing about Emilia Bassano and her husband Will Lanier sheds interesting light on the Will poems 135 and 136, notably with regard to the surplus Wills of the Dark Lady, an echo perhaps of her two wills (or Wills), Will Shakespeare and Will Lanier. Emilia Bassano’s surname moreover occurs prominently in The Merchant of Venice albeit in the guise of a feckless young fortune hunter, Bassanio, who seems to be as embroiled in a gender-bending triangle (Bassanio – Antonio – Portia) every bit as ambiguous as that of the fair youth, poet, and dark lady scenario envisaged in the Sonnets. The Sonnets would suggest that Shakespeare’s answer to Juliet Capulet’s ‘What’s in a name’ might have been ‘quite a lot’.

[9] But the most intriguing link between the life and work may be the poet’s twice-married granddaughter Elizabeth Barnard, née Hall. Her parents Susanna Shakespeare and John Hall married on Friday 5 June 1607 and Elizabeth was born 9 months later, on 21 February 1608. At the time her grandfather was working on Pericles, which was entered on the Stationers Register on 20 May 1608. The first of Shakespeare’s two uses of the word ‘child-bed’ in that play occurs at the birth of Marina in Act 3. Parting from his ‘dead’ queen, her father Pericles notes ‘A terrible childbed hast thou had, my dear, | No light, no fire.’ (3.1.55-56). The only other occurrence is in The Winter’s Tale, when Hermione claims that she was ‘the childbed privilege denied, which ‘longs | To women of all fashion’(3.2.101-02)

[10] Connecting contemporaneous events in the poet’s life to Pericles, the Arden editor Suzanne Gossett writes that

Susanna Shakespeare delivers a daughter in the week of 21 February 1608. Shakespeare, with painful memories of losing a child revived by the death of Edmund’s son and obsessed with the possibility that Susanna will die in childbirth, is relieved. Around this time he takes over the play, pouring his grief over the deaths of Edmund and his infant son, his fears for Susanna and his delight at his granddaughter’s birth into the scenes of birth and apparent death in the third and fourth acts. (Gossett 2004: 61)

Elizabeth Barnard is a significant figure in the Shakespeare story, as the last survivor of the poet’s direct line and the one about whom we probably know most. Her father, the distinguished doctor John Hall, husband of Shakespeare’s eldest child Susannah, wrote at length about her health which is how we know that she suffered from a neurological condition known as Bell’s palsy, a form of temporary facial paralysis. Also it is because of the importance of 22 April in her life (she returned from London in 1626 on that date and she married her first husband Thomas Nash on 22 April 1626) that people have wondered, ever since Thomas De Quincey first remarked upon it, whether this was not after all Shakespeare’s real birthday. Moreover she reputedly moved books from her home in New Place with her when she joined her husband in Abington. All these, taken together with her generous, family-minded last will (she included the Hathaways in it, unlike her grandfather), suggest that she may have seen herself as the guardian of her family’s memory. By the time she died in 1670 the Shakespeares had become the first family of Stratford, after the Cloptons. Not only did Elizabeth know her illustrious grandfather during the first eight years of her life, at a time when she quite probably lived in the same house, New Place, as him and her grandmother, but he remembered her in his will. In the long years that followed – she survived him by 54 years – she would every Sunday have seen his bust in Holy Trinity from the Halls’ prestigious pew next to the Clopton Chapel in the north aisle.

2. The DNA of the Shakespeare graves
[11] In June 1981 Elizabeth Barnard was exhumed in Abington. Given her importance in the Shakespeare story, it seems extraordinary in retrospect that her exhumation did not cause more of a stir in the national press. It took The Times nearly three months to report it (18 September 1981: ‘Shades of Shakespeare’s Past’). It remained virtually unknown until the publication of The Shakespeare Circle, when the manuscript account of the exhumation, by Arthur Marlow, was discovered in the archives of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, after an extract from it had been shared by the genealogist John Taplin with the author of this paper (Edmondson & Wells 2015: 122-134). The details of the exhumation of Elizabeth Barnard need not detain us here, but a unique opportunity of taking a DNA sample from her was missed.

[12] Quite how permission for exhuming Elizabeth Barnard was sought and granted is not known. The prospect of a similarly full exploration of the Shakespeare graves in Holy Trinity has long exercised researchers and the wider public. On Saturday 26 March 2016 Channel 4 broadcast a programme called ‘Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb’. The timing was presumably not fortuitous, with the following day being Easter Sunday 2016. Not that Channel 4 were quite implying that Shakespeare would rise from the dead, but they wanted to find parts of him and particularly his skull. A rumour held that the poet’s head had been removed at some point from the tomb in the chancel of Holy Trinity and had migrated to Beoley. According to the Telegraph of 23 March 2016,

St Leonard’s Church, located 15 miles north-west of Stratford in Beoley, is home to a lone skull in a sealed crypt that some have thought could be Shakespeare’s. The current vicar … sought permission from the Church of England’s Consistory Court to have the skull tested for DNA, but had the application rejected on a lack of firm evidence.

When permission to test was eventually secured it turned out that the bardic pretender skull belonged to a woman in her 70s. Not that this proof was needed. The afterlife of the famous grave in Stratford-upon-Avon is after all reasonably well documented through the ages, thanks to a number of Stratford antiquarians, in particular the Stratford grammar school teacher Reverend Joseph Greene (1712-90), the Reverend James Davenport (1787-1841), and Robert B. Wheler (1785-1857). They are among the largely unsung heroes of the Shakespeare story. It is thanks to them that we have Shakespeare’s will, which was found by Greene, and his wedding licence or ‘bond’, which Wheler unearthed in 1836 thus confirming the identity of Shakespeare’s bride. Until then all that was known about her was Nicholas Rowe’s remark in 1709 life of Shakespeare that ‘his wife was the daughter of one Hathaway, said to have been a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood of Stratford’, an assertion not helped by the fact that the grant on the Shakespeares’ wedding licence preserved in the Worcester Register gives her name as ‘Whateley’. It is courtesy of the upright Reverend Davenport that we know that Shakespeare’s grave was inadvertently disturbed when the newly widowed Davenport was having a grave dug for his wife in 1796. What happened, it seems, is that the gravedigger broke through the side of Shakespeare’s burial place, realized what he had done, and resealed it, after taking care to ensure that the poet’s grave remained safe from prying eyes. He did not poke around in it nor did he leave an account of what he did not see. Writing about these events in 1820, Washington Irving noted that it was likely that when the ‘adjoining vault’ was dug [for Margaret Davenport, the vicar’s wife], ‘the earth caved in’, leaving a space through which it might be possible to reach Shakespeare. The same sexton who acted as Irving’s guide in Holy Trinity had kept watch in 1796 until the work was finished. He did however look through the hole himself ‘but could see neither coffin nor bones; nothing but dust. It was something, I thought, to have seen the dust of Shakespeare.’ (Irving 1861: 324-325).

[13] Documenting these events years later, Halliwell-Phillipps concurred:

The most scrupulous care, however, was taken not to disturb the neighbouring earth […] the clerk having been placed there till the brickwork of the adjoining vault was completed to prevent anyone making an examination. No relics whatever were visible through the small opening that thus presented itself, and as the poet was buried in the ground, not in a vault, the great probability is that dust alone remains. (emphases added; Halliwell-Phillipps’s comments are reproduced in the Gettysburgh Compiler of 17 June 1908.)

To explore the same space some 220 years later, Channel 4 were allowed to use Ground Penetrating Radar. But it did not in truth yield much by way of information, even if it appeared to suggest that the poet was buried not in a coffin or shell but wrapped in a winding sheet directly in the earth, in an essentially shallow grave. Can this really be so when his granddaughter instead was buried in a vault? What would have been needed is for a laparoscopic camera to be lowered into the grave in Holy Trinity but that was a step too far even if it would probably not have disturbed the poet’s bones. The injunction on the grave, or the ‘curse’ as some have called it, to leave his remains alone (‘Good friend for Jesus sake forbear, | To dig the dust enclosed here!| Blessed be the man that spares these stones, | And cursed be he that moves my bones’) has been one of the main reasons why Shakespeare’s grave has not so far been opened. It is as if the nation’s favourite son’s writ were still running.

[14] Or maybe not. The Pittsburgh Gazette Times of Sunday 1 December 1912 reports that Charles Knight (publisher and editor of a well-known 19th century illustrated Shakespeare), had apparently seen Shakespeare’s remains during the restoration of Holy Trinity in, presumably, 1835. In Shakespeare’s Lives Schoenbaum calls Knight ‘an honourable man’ and a champion of ‘Victorian humanitarianism’ (Schoenbaum 1970: 384). In 1842 Knight settled in Stratford to write the biographical volume of his Pictorial Shakespeare. The source of the assertion that Knight claimed to have seen Shakespeare in his grave (‘the positive statement’) is not given. If true, it is odd that Knight should not mention this in his 1843 biography of Shakespeare, which is reticent about anything relating to the grave in Holy Trinity.

[15] According to the Pittsburgh Gazette Times, ‘[Knight] subsequently made the positive statement that he had seen the remains of the poet.’ But did he? In a forceful letter to the London Times of 30 January 1888 (‘Stratford-on-Avon Church: its ancient charnel-house and Shakespeare’s grave’), Halliwell-Phillipps voiced strong reservations about more proposed restoration (’mischief’) of Holy Trinity at just that time as it might compound the damage done to this famous building by earlier so-called restorations, of which there were moreover were no proper records. The works that fifty years earlier had allegedly allowed Knight to gaze on Shakespeare’s remains are singled out for special opprobrium:

No detail later extant of the extensive alterations made in the chancel in the closing years of the last century, and, strangely enough, no particulars are recorded of the deplorable metamorphoses of the interior of the entire building that was effected so recently as 1835.

The dreaded restorations that Halliwell-Phillips feared would go the same way as the 1835 ones went ahead anyway, it seems, and no better records appear to have been kept then than were of the earlier restoration. Moreover, and for a third time in the space of less than a hundred years, they may have exposed Shakespeare’s remains again. If the Pittsburgh Gazette Times can be believed, after Charles Knight it was the turn of the Holy Trinity sexton Martin Bird sexton to see Shakespeare:

The last time the grave was opened was about 30 years ago [1892], and the remains viewed by Martin Bird, who was then the sexton of the church, and who is still alive and residing at Stratford. Mr Bird is now in his ninetieth year and lately made an affidavit setting forth the following facts: ‘I have lived in Stratford-on-Avon 70 years. About 30 years ago I was present when Shakespeare’s remains were exposed to view, at which time a stone was moved, a candle let down and I could see the bones of Shakespeare … In the short minute they were exposed to view, I could plainly see, by the aid of the light of the candle, a perfect skeleton.’

There is no obvious reason to doubt the trustworthiness of Martin Bird. The Gazette Times did not make him up. A quick genealogical check in ancestry.co.uk reveals that a Richard Martin Bird, born about 1823, died in Stratford in 1918 at the age of 95, so he would indeed have been in his ninetieth year in 1912. The 1911 census gives his address as ‘Arondale Alveston, Stratford-on-Avon’ and his profession as wine merchant. Did he double as sexton? He does not refer to himself as sexton (the Gazette does that), only noting that he had been a resident in Stratford at the time of the 1892 removal (or temporary shifting?) of the grave stone. Did he really see ‘a perfect skeleton’ 276 years after Shakespeare’s burial? While this may chime with Charles Knight’s apparently seeing the poet’s remains 57 year earlier, it hardly does with Irving’s and Halliwell-Phillipps’s reporting of what was (or rather was not) seen in 1796. Then again, in 1796, it seems to have been a matter of peering through an accidental aperture while Bird specifically mentions the moving of the gravestone.

[16] The Shakespeare graves in the chancel in Holy Trinity as given by the authoritative Victoria County History volume (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks /vol3/pp269-282) on Shakespeare’s church are laid out as follows:

Carefully preserved in the floor, east of the communion rails, are the grave-slabs connected with Shakespeare’s family and others. (1) Northernmost, with a brass inscription to Anne wife of William Shakespeare, died 6 August 1623, aged 67. (2) (William Shakespeare) … (3) Thomas Nash, married Elizabeth daughter of John Halle, gent., died 4 April 1647, aged 53… (4) John Hall, married Susanna daughter of William Shakespeare and died 25 November 1635, aged 60 … (5) Susanna, wife of John Hall, died 11 July 1649, aged 66. (6) Francis Watts of Rine Clifford, 1691. (7) Anne, wife of last, 1704. There is also a slab for Judith Combe with a white marble border for the inscription.

The wife of Malone’s trusted correspondent, the former vicar James Davenport, is buried west and down the chancel from Shakespeare’s grave.

3. Judith Shakespeare, daughter of her father’s house
[17] If Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth Hall naturally rests with her second husband in Abington, what of that absent member of the Shakespeare family who should be in the chancel of Holy Trinity, Judith Quiney, née Shakespeare, the twin sister of Hamnet? She is not mentioned in the row of graves even though she almost certain rests here too. Judith was buried on 9 February 1662; she was 77 years old. Is the reason for her absence that she wanted to be interred next to her twin brother Hamnet? Unlike us she would have known exactly whereabouts in Holy Trinity or in its churchyard little Hamnet Shakespeare was buried. She was eleven when he died and she must have attended his funeral on 11 August 1596 along with other members of her family.

[18] There may of course be a more mundane reason for her not being in the family row in the chancel: like her sister and her niece in Abington Judith too may have been buried next to her husband, the reckless Thomas Quiney who may have died in in the same year as her, around 1662-3 when the registers of Holy Trinity show a gap. The obvious place of burial for Judith and her husband would be to be buried alongside her sister Susanna and Dr John Hall. This notwithstanding the fact that 46 years earlier Thomas Quiney had darkened William Shakespeare’s last days on earth by betraying Judith and plunging his new family into scandal. In other words, Judith and her husband should rest next to Susanna and John Hall, in graves numbers 6 and 7, occupied by Francis and Ann Watts who have no connection to the Shakespeare clan. In the light of this it seems likely that the Quiney-Shakespeare grave was opened at some point to receive the Watts couple and that a new stone was laid down with their names on it. Certainly that would seem to be indicated by the arrangement of the graves in the chancel, particularly as the Watts graves are at the outer edge of the Shakespeare row on the south side and therefore furthest from the Shakespeare nucleus. This might account for the fact that it was Judith and Thomas who were disturbed rather than Susanna and her husband, in spite of the fact that Judith had only been dead for 29 years when Francis Watts was buried in her and Thomas’s grave (if they were).

[19] There is a further possibility regarding Judith’s and Thomas’s graves. By 1639 the couple’s three sons had all died. One can only imagine their heartache. Would it not be natural for them to be resting alongside their children, perhaps somewhere in the churchyard of Holy Trinity? Unless the Quiney-Shakespeare boys occupied the grave that now bears the Watts’ name long before their parents. Which leads one to wonder whether or not Hamnet Shakespeare may not after all be buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity. Eleven years later, on New Year’s Eve of 1607, the little boy’s father had paid twenty shillings to honour Hamnet’s uncle Edmund in St Saviour’s in Southwark, by ‘a forenoon knell of the great bell’. From the record it is clear that Shakespeare arranged for his younger brother to be buried in the church rather than outside of it. It stands to reason that the ‘gentle’ playwright, who bought the largest home in Stratford, also wanted to ensure that his only son rested somewhere where his family, his twin sister, and his mother and father could share the presence of his mortal remains at the very least in church every Sunday. If in the future the Shakespeare graves are examined in full it would make sense to search in the graves for the children of the Shakespeare families, Hamnet and his three nephews by his sister Judith.

[20] The most salient documentary fact about Judith Shakespeare is her father’s rewriting of his legacy to her in the second draft of his will of 25 March 1616, introducing her specifically into his will by name, replacing his son-in-law. We don’t know for certain why he did so but it is widely surmised that this astringent act intended to ring fence her share of the estate against her husband Thomas Quiney. Judith married Quiney on 10 February 1616. A Lenten marriage required a special dispensation. This had clearly been granted. As Judith was not pregnant, it seems that she was keen to marry before her father died, to be given away by him, further proof perhaps that Shakespeare was seriously ill during the two months that separate the January and March 1616 drafts of his will. Within six weeks of the marriage Quiney was exposed as the father of the baby of Margaret Wheler who died in childbirth with her infant so that Judith’s marriage was followed not long afterwards by the funeral of her newly-wed husband’s lover and baby, on 15 March 1616.

[21] Ever since 1616 Judith has been overshadowed by her elder sister Susanna who received the lion’s share of her father’s estate and who had married one of the most brilliant physicians in the country. Susanna is moreover credited on her grave with being like her father: ‘Witty above her sex, but that’s not all, | Wise to salvation was good Mistress Hall, | Something of Shakespeare was in that, but this | Wholly of him with whom she is now in bliss.’ Neither the redrafting of the will nor the tribute to Susanna turn Judith into a Cinderella figure, even if she was evidently less fortunate than her elder sister in her wedded state. And Judith is not quite as shadowy as is sometimes assumed: on 4 December 1611, over four years before her father’s death, she witnessed a deed of sale for a family who had resided at New Place until the summer of 1611, an action that implies considerable trust and legitimate authority.

[22] Did Judith stand in for her father on this occasion, traditionally a time when, we think, he would be in London, earning the money that allowed the Shakespeares to live in style in Stratford-upon-Avon? That her father may have been absent during this wintry period is suggested by the fact that a new play of his, The Tempest, had just recently opened in London. By the time The Tempest was staged at Court on 1 November 1611 (its first recorded performance), the household at New Place appears to have contracted to Shakespeare, his wife Anne, and his daughter Judith. Shakespeare’s lawyer cousin, Thomas Greene (the same Greene who in 1614 refers to ‘my cousin Shakespeare coming yesterday to town I went to see him how he did’: Chambers 1930: 143) had moved out by then. So too, probably, had the Halls and their daughter, following the Greenes to Old Town. The house, for centuries known locally as ‘Hall’s Croft’, is in all likelihood the house that the Halls had built for them at just that time, with dendrochronology dating the timber of the building conclusively to around 1612-13.

[23] Along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest is probably the Shakespeare play least indebted to a structuring source even if its debt to Ovid’s Metamorphoses is pervasive at local levels. So is his use of Montaigne’s Essays and, perhaps above all, the tribulations, including shipwrecks, of the Virginia Company as it sought to explore new worlds. It has long been seen as perhaps Shakespeare’s most overtly autobiographical play, if one dare put it like that. In Ungentle Shakespeare, Katherine Duncan-Jones singles out As You Like It for this accolade because of its ‘William’ and the fact that the work seems to play in Shakespeare’s family’s own rural backyard, the Forest of Arden.

[24] What people usually mean by calling The Tempest autobiographical is no more than to note the obvious parallel between Prospero’s bidding farewell to his magic and Shakespeare’s retiring from the stage. The play is his last solo effort, even though he would return to collaborate on Two Noble Kinsmen and, finally, two years later, on Henry VIII.

[25] That Shakespeare ‘retired’ is not a solecism while at the same time retirement was clearly differently understood from today. He would have known all about the idea of retiring from reading Virgil and his Roman historians about, among others, Cincinnatus and Sulla. He had been a grandfather for three years by the time he wrote The Tempest, a magnificent neo-classical fable about nature and nurture, innocence and guilt, sexuality and power. Its prominence in the 1623 commemorative First Folio – it opens the collection – is in itself revealing about the valedictory status of the play and the esteem in which it was held by Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors. And also, perhaps, because they knew that it had been his own leave-taking from the stage that had made his fortune and to which he must have been profoundly attached. It stands to reason that the most acclaimed dramatist of all time loved his stagecraft and the invigorating madness and camaraderie of writing and acting. What better way to part company from it than with a masterpiece that moreover demonstrated to all and sundry that he could be as neoclassically disciplined as the best of them, including his friend Ben Jonson, who would pay tribute to him twice in the 1623 Folio?

[26] The creative arc of Shakespeare’s work concludes with the group commonly classed as romances, not a genre recognized by the First Folio which lists them under tragedies (Cymbeline) and comedies (The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest), with Pericles left out probably because it was a collaborative venture. As in the comedies so in the romances young women rule the roost, even if their play worlds have darkened and death enters into lists as it never quite did in the comedies, not even in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s last comedy and probably his bleakest. But the young women of the romances, starting with Marina in Pericles, followed by Imogen, Perdita and, particularly perhaps Miranda, are imagined quite differently from Portia, Viola, and Rosalind. They are daughters of fathers first and young women second, and their marriages form part of a process that helps to redeem and reestablish the domestic world. Whereas Portia, Viola, and other comedy heroines are cut off from mother and father (dead in both their cases), the young women of the romances carry different burdens from romantic union. Time and again they seem to be connected imaginatively to redemptive yearnings which is why these works are sometimes thought to resonate with religious motifs, whether in the Pauline echoes of The Winter’s Tale and its repeated returns to faith or the monastic life fervently embraced, or so he claims, by Prospero on his return to Milan.

[27] There may well be something in this. Shakespeare, though still only in his late forties at the time of the romances, may have been mellowing after the searing play Coriolanus which coincided with his own mother’s death. Just before Pericles Shakespeare became a grandfather and by the time he wrote The Tempest he shared his house New Place with, mostly, women: his wife Anne, his daughters Susannah and Judith, his granddaughter Elizabeth and of course his son-in-law John Hall, who may have spent much time out of the house, riding across Warwickshire tending to his many patients. Is it entirely fanciful then to wonder whether the reemergence of young women as powerful benign forces in late Shakespeare might not after all have its roots in his domestic circumstances?

[28] Twins were ever close to Shakespeare’s heart and his dramatic imagination. It would be counter-intuitive to think that Twelfth Night could be divorced from his real life twin children, not least because of the play’s close proximity to Hamlet, a play that even if it is not named after his dead son – there was an earlier, now lost, play Hamlet by a dramatist (Thomas Kyd?) other than Shakespeare – at least shares his name. Hamlet and Hamnet, the name commonly given to Shakespeare’s son, were used interchangeably in Stratford-upon-Avon about Hamnet / Hamlet Sadler, the very person after whom Shakespeare’s little boy was almost certainly named, with Shakespeare’s friends Judith and Hamnet Sadler acting as godparents to the Shakespeare twins by the same names. It seems inconceivable that Shakespeare could ever have pronounced the name Hamlet without thinking of his dead son who, if he had lived, would have been well into his teens when his father wrote Hamlet, the ultimate father-son play. In Shakespeare’s Language (2001) Frank Kermode remarked that after Hamlet everything in Shakespeare changed. The scale of the play’s philosophical range, its drive, and the texture of its rhetoric, hitherto unparalleled even in Shakespeare, not to mention its epic scale – why would Shakespeare write a play that is twice the expected length of a tragedy – all may point to a profound personal investment in the work. If we are right to propose a date of composition for Hamlet after Shakespeare’s father’s death or during his final illness, that is a date close to the play’s entry on the Stationers’ Register of 26 July 1602, that might firm up the idea that the play carries an autobiographical punch, with Shakespeare forcibly reminded in 1601/02 of his own roles as both father and son. (In their edition of Hamlet, Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor note that the ‘firmest external evidence’ for dating the play is the 1602 entry in the Stationers’ and, of course, Q1’s 1603 title-page (Thompson and Taylor 2006: 43-59)).

[29] The chronology of the plays matters because Hamlet may intimately connect with Twelfth Night in a context of real life domestic parallels with imaginative motifs. The first recorded reference to the famous comedy occurs in the diary of the law student John Manningham, who saw the play performed at Middle Temple on the 17th anniversary of the christening of Shakespeare’s twins in Holy Trinity. This may be a coincidence – could Shakespeare really dictate the performance calendar at Middle Temple? – but a play about cross-gender twins by a father of boy-girl twins would hardly be so. It would stretch credulity as a fortuitous connection, the more so since other evidence suggests that Shakespeare may not have been averse from drawing on his own life. If the imaginative drive of Romeo and Juliet and Pericles may at least in part be powered by personal concerns, to the point where Romeo and Juliet may be response to the loss of Hamnet, as Julia Kristeva has argued (Weis 2012: 55), so that post hoc > propter hoc, then to argue that Hamlet Shakespeare and Hamlet the Dane are somehow linked may not be entirely outlandish. Such an interpretative arc, however tentative, would suggest that Twelfth Night fits perfectly into this narrative.

[30] Hamlet and Twelfth Night are not an immediately obvious pair, but they may become so when set against the backdrop of Shakespeare’s family. If the most famous father-son play in the world resonates with the domestic memories of the Shakespeare family, as it may well do, then Twelfth Night, the play that immediately and perhaps surprisingly follows it, also needs to be seen in that light. How could it not given that it is, quite independently from context, the play that most directly engages the Shakespeare family’s children. The hero of the tragedy is of course Hamlet while the protagonist of Twelfth Night is Viola. Is this most vulnerable yet hugely charismatic of heroines inspired by Judith Shakespeare? If so, it is tempting to view the play as a ritual almost of thanksgiving for her life. And whereas in real life she spent the six years that separate the Middle Temple premiere of 1602 from the death of her twin brother in 1596 missing him, in the play Shakespeare grants the twins the fantasy of a happy ending, of that ‘deity in my nature | Of here and everywhere’ that reunites two halves. To simplify, if Hamlet shows Shakespeare privately wrestling with the loss of Hamnet, in Twelfth Night he indulges in an impossible dream featuring his daughter Judith as Viola. What this all would seem to suggest is that Shakespeare’s family, his mother and father, his three children and his granddaughter all left a profound trace history in his writing to the extent where consciously or unconsciously his pattern of writing was influenced by events. If the writing of the anomalously positioned tragedy of Romeo and Juliet – chronologically it comes too early and who has ever heard of children as tragic protagonists? – was triggered by the death of Hamnet, then all the other surmised links between the works and the life acquire a logic of their own. In the process Shakespeare emerges as a Romantic writer long before any such concept ever existed. It also creates links between Viola and the young women of the last plays, all of them perhaps sharing in Judith Shakespeare.


[1] All references to Shakespeare’s works are to The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed. (2016). Ed. by Stephen Greenblatt et al (New York: Norton) [back to text]


Booth, Stephen. 1977. Shakespeare’s Sonnets (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Chambers, E. K. 1930. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (Oxford: Oxford University Press), vol. 2

Duncan-Jones, Katherine. 2001. Ungentle Shakespeare (London: Thomson Learning)

Edmondson, Paul and Stanley Wells (eds). 2015. The Shakespeare Circle: An Alternative Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Gossett, Susan (ed.) 2004. Pericles, The Arden Shakespeare Third Series (London: Thomson Learning)

Gurr, Andrew. 1971. ‘Shakespeare’s first poem: Sonnet 145’, Essays in Criticism, 21: 221-6

Irving, Washington. 1861. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, (London: John Murray)

Keats, John. 1970. Letters of John Keats. Ed. Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Schoenbaum, Samuel. 1970. Shakespeare’s Lives (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Thompson, Ann, and Neil Taylor (eds). 2006. Hamlet, The Arden Shakespeare Third Series (London: Thomson Learning)

Weis, René (ed.). 2012. Romeo and Juliet , The Arden Shakespeare Third Series (London: Bloomsbury)



Susan Wiseman

[1] In her first book, Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare, Alison Thorne explores ‘how visual and verbal modes of figuring the world, ways of seeing and ways of talking, are brought into productive relationship’ (2000: 12). It focuses on Shakespeare, placing his writing in an extended framework of cultural transmission. The study’s central concern is how ‘certain kinds of visual experiences might be reproduced in a verbal medium’ and it places visual and verbal rhetoric side by side (xiii-xiv). As Thorne notes, quoting Martin Kemp, innovative visual rhetoric from Italy was ‘“creatively transmogrified”’ as it was taken through Europe, and ‘“in its new country, a certain strangeness tends to persist”’ (Kemp 1990: 53; cited Thorne 2000: 39-40). Alison remained interested in what happens to visual and verbal rhetoric in novel situations. She was analysing particularly how scholars can see forms of rhetoric (verbal but also visual) at work in situations in which these had not previously been understood as central. This was a concern that developed throughout her academic career, from this first study to her research on supplication most recently expressed in an essay on Esther and rhetoric.

[2] In distinct ways, the essays gathered here take their cue from an emphasis on transmitted and changed culture and how new circumstances remake the world. Thus, Veerapen considers slanderous rhetoric in the realm of innocent speech acts, good words made bad; Clark shows us Breton’s wit as a guide to the psyche; Richards discloses how physical voice haunts the material text and changes our understanding of it; Hackett shows us the schoolroom inside the early modern mind and Weis invites us to consider the benefits of literal exhumation for scholarship of Shakespeare’s life and works. They contribute their own research and share in Alison’s interests. At the same time, they are published together because of an intellectual sociability that Alison sustained from her time at University College, London and which flourished in the engaged and adventurous world offered by the University of Strathclyde and Scotland’s Renaissance studies community and to which she contributed so much, not least by setting up a multi-institution Master’s degree in Renaissance Literature.

[3] Douglas Clark’s renovation of how we approach Nicholas Breton elegantly demonstrates how attending to the focus, aims and purposes articulated in his works shows it to be a rich resource of Renaissance thought on the ‘mind’. Clark explores the ways in which Breton reflects on mental experience to elucidate that writer’s engagement with the way reflection, such as memory, renders the subject vulnerable to ‘internal’ and external forces. Breton’s writing shows us a striking consideration of the way thought, in its most powerful and ludic processes, is a weave of passion, reason and desire. Clark’s analysis shows Breton as a thinker whose concerns for this subject are to be aligned with Montaigne and probably Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) and Sir John Davies’ Nosce Teipsum (1599). This essay produces Breton as a poet whose synthetic understanding of mind invites us to see him as a thinker. Thus, seeking to explore the dynamics of the subject, Breton both splits and unifies ‘Wit’ and ‘Will’. This allows his work to be understood as a significant exploration of the languages of early modern subjectivity and mind.

[4] At stake in Helen Hackett’s discussion of the grammar school is the way it both made the subject a compliant thinker and, yet, in doing so, facilitated that subject’s critical rethinking of himself and his world in later life. Distinguishing between history and literary criticism as disciplines which study the grammar school, this essay analyses the accounts of the influence and social place of formal school education in the work of literary criticism and in history. It finds literary critical scholarship characterised by an optimistic account of the early modern male writer, such as Ben Jonson or William Shakespeare. However, turning to primary evidence, Hackett writes about the contrastingly ‘negative’, reactive, accounts of the early modern boys’ school to be found in those sources. Recognising the relationship between the school-room subject and that subject grown adult as the unexamined heart of this question, Hackett sees that grammar school writers gave positive or negative accounts of a past which, nevertheless, shaped their writing. She is also concerned to indicate that such grammar school pupils, once educated, were able to use the educational techniques of rhetoric to ends which the authorities could regard as either obedient or subversive. In the right circumstances, rhetorical or actual transgression can facilitate rather than disrupt the securing of social approval from the masculine elite. This essay, with Thorne’s own work and Richards’ important contribution, are part of a significant body of scholarship rethinking the dynamics and dimensions of rhetoric and conceiving its cultural place in ways which situate it more richly in relation to agency, circumstance and the present world of the early modern subject.

[5] Richards’ and Hackett’s contributions to this volume are also contributions to a body of intellectual work and associated intellectual community that is engaged in reframing rhetoric. A key further contribution in this field is the volume of essays Thorne co-edited with Richards, Rhetoric, Women and Politics in Early Modern England (2007). This volume initiated explicit study of women’s relationship to the linguistic tools signalling masculine status and facility. In continuing to address the question of female voice in Protestant discourse, Jennifer Richards’ essay intervenes at a crucial faultline in the study of women, rhetoric and institutional structures. As she elucidates, while critics (such as Patricia Pender) have been attentive and precise in exploring women’s intervention in the rhetoric of print and paratext, the question of voice has been addressed either obliquely, evocatively or in a context laden with assumptions – as in some of the understandings of genre as a form of ventriloquisation. Turning towards the place of the female subject as, literally, a speaker of the rhetoric of Protestantism, Richards pays equally precise attention to the ways in which Askew voices the Bible, and is glossed as a speaker, arguing that by recognising her voice as both saturated with Biblical language and story, and agile in mobilising the force of such words, it is also specific in ways that can be glossed by Bale. Richards demonstrates that a flexible, yet authoritative, female Protestant spoken rhetoric can be excavated from the printed text. She continues to reconsider the place of both Askew’s language within a text, in which her evidence is often seen as over-written by commentary, and a wider re-evaluation of female voices in the early moments of English Protestantism. Such a re-evaluation can add or, arguably, recover the dimension of voice as part of the increasing number of ways in which women shaped the English Reformation in its first half century or so. This essay is also a close and generous companion of Thorne’s work on rhetoric and gender.

[6] The significance of words and rhetoric in a legal setting is the subject of Veerapen’s essay exploring the way high legal concepts of slanderous intention could be subverted by simple – and simultaneously pleasurable–uses of particular ballad tunes (or, indeed, the simple naming of particular tunes). This use of music to slander is, as he writes, both represented and investigated on the Renaissance stage. In arguing that the principle of mitior sensus invited an interpreter to consider the slanderous potential of a speech as inoffensive, Veerapen sees this as setting the terms on which accusations were made and offences committed. Citing the whistling of a tune in the anonymous history play Woodstock, as well as ministers’ use of portions of the Bible, the essay shows the densely embedded place of both literary writing and events in addressing power and effecting changes in political perception.

[7] René Weis’s essay takes up one of Thorne’s key interests, Shakespeare, to explore the pleasures and perils of literal exhumation for scholarship on Shakespeare’s life and writing. Making the point that, although we cannot know what Shakespeare was thinking, we can see resemblances between events in his life, for example in the the number and names of his children and the names of characters in his plays. It builds on this to speculate whether we can know more about both by digging up, as Weis puts it, ‘the daughters of his house’ – and perhaps even the great sire himself. The essay offers a cultural study of those claiming to have availed themselves of forensic glimpses of the bard in situ. Weis’s essay, then, takes us underground to emphasise the value of empirical, indeed physical, as much as textual, evidence.

[8]We can turn to the text and its users and consider both with regard to the political agency of female subjects in one of Alison’s most recent pieces. While the connections with her first monograph are clear, we can also see the continuing benefits of her creative and sophisticated thinking on rhetorical situations. In this later research, her concentration is not simply on the empirical but also on how a story can be complex and nuanced yet, equally and simultaneously, experienced by its users as ready at hand, agile and applicable in actual circumstances. If Thorne began her writing career with Shakespeare, her recent contribution to feminist scholarship has been in terms of a discussion of the Book of Esther as used in supplication texts by early modern women. In a complex and wide ranging analysis, Thorne supported her contention that ‘the convergence of female pleading with the hidden operation of divine providence or fateful coincidences lays the bedrock for a political partnership that will ultimately deliver justice and preferment for the persecuted Jewish diaspora’ (2015: 95). As Thorne reminds us, Esther’s combination of sagacity and daring made her both a political model for both sexes and particularly for church reformers, but also for women poets who might use her case to claim fellowship with a persecuted minority. Thorne traces the way many took up Esther’s complex resolution, ‘so I will go to the King, which is not according to the Law: and if I perish, I perish’ (Esther 4:16), commenting that this ‘earned her a resounding tribute in Aemilia Lanyer’s poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611)’ as an exemplar of female godliness joined to determination and purity of heart:

Though virtuous Hester fasted three dayes space,
And spent her time in prayers all that while,
That by Gods powre shee might obtain such grace,
That she and hers might not become a spoyle
To wicked Hamon, in whose crabbed face
Was seen the map of malice, envie, guile;
Her glorious garments though she put apart,
So to present a pure and single heart.

                         (Lanyer 1993: 115–16; cited Thorne 2015)

Thus Thorne’s work on Esther takes its place in a significant collection of essays and in doing so continues to contribute to two areas in which her scholarship has made such an important contribution: the question of words and rhetoric in the texts of those not previously seen as using them, and within that, the study of women as rhetorical agents and subjects.

[9] The question of rhetoric recontextualised, but also rethought to disclose areas obscured by the way scholarship has operated, underpins Thorne’s work. The question Vision and Rhetoric was asking of the formative effect of reception and transmission is taken up here in precincts quite distinct from her field of argument. However, these essays are united in their attentiveness to the way subjects, or evidence, or texts are remade in new circumstances that the contributors explore by putting their own work in relation to Thorne’s. The topics linked to Alison’s work include the closely related field of rhetoric libel and law (Veerapen), the question of the rhetoric of the subject (Clark and to some extent Hackett), and the remaking of our understanding of the past in terms of voice (Richards) or in terms of combining material and written evidence (Weiss). As important, these essays imply and in part express Alison Thorne’s generous and rich intellectual friendship and conversation, from her work at University College London as a graduate student to her close collaborations at Strathclyde and in Scotland. These essays are a product of many voices and conversations with Thorne’s generous discursivity at their core.

Birkbeck, University of London


Thanks to the editors for inviting this contribution, and for their patience.


Kemp, Martin. The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (New Haven and London: Yale, 1990)

Lanyer, Aemelia. Poems: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, ed. by Susanne Woods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)

Pender, Patricia. Early Modern Women’s Writing and the Rhetoric of Modesty (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2012)

Thorne, Alison. Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000)

_____. ‘The politics of female supplication in the Book of Esther’ in Biblical Women in Early Modern Literary Culture, ed. by Victoria Brownlee and Laura Gallagher (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), pp. 95-110

Introduction: Scrutinizing Surfaces in Early Modern Thought

Introduction: Scrutinizing Surfaces in Early Modern Thought

Liz Oakley-Brown & Kevin Killeen

[1]  By examining the relationships between inanimate and animate matter in early-modern Europe, this special issue on Scrutinizing Surfaces in Early Modern Thought takes up and develops Joseph A. Amato’s trans-historical investigation of how ‘humans, ourselves a body of surfaces, meet and interact with a world dressed in surfaces’ (2013: xv). The past three decades have witnessed an ‘emergent field of critical, surficial thought’ (Forsyth et al 2013: 1017) with theoretical curiosity in, for example, flatness, topology, networks and relationality (Deleuze & Guattari 2004; Latour, 2005; Adkins & Lury, 2009; Lury, Parisi & Terranova 2012; Bennett, 2010; Hodder, 2012). In material terms, landscapes, water and the ecological impact of the Anthropocene have been surveyed (Forsyth et al 2013; Gooley, 2016; Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000) alongside terraneous particles such as dust (Amato, 2000) and soil (Eklund 2017). Zooming in and out to examine both minute and capacious things, writers such as Vivian Sobchack (2004), Tim Ingold (2007), and Glen Adamson and Victoria Kelly (2013) analyse line and surface; literary, historical and semiotic theorists, for instance Claudia Benthien (2002), Steven Connor (2004), Elspeth Probyn (2005), Patricia Cahill (2009) and Tanya Pollard (2010), study the significance of cutaneous coverings.[1] However, amidst this profusion of twenty-first century interest, the historical, cultural and social specificity of surfaces per se have been largely overlooked. While some essays are explicitly informed by Jacques Derrida, Daniel Miller and Michel Serres and others are more broadly influenced by the general concepts of ‘surficial thought’ outlined above, each article in this special issue works toward the inauguration of what might be termed sixteenth- and seventeenth-century surface studies.

[2]  The accomplished metaphor of depth and profundity worked to the full in early modern thought, but by no means did it monopolise the era’s ontologies or its poetics. Renaissance rhetoric’s bad conscience and delicious secret was that it was all surface, decorative, gilded, cosmetic. Rhetoric was paint and gloss, and one could never plane the wood down finely enough to be unadorned. We could surely not reckon up the number of abject apologies in which the author insisted he or she was without craft, unadorned and naked in what they write, thrown upon blunt res when verba failed. This too, the era knew, was rhetoric, the parrhesia of the crafty Iago as much as the candid councilor. Hence Francis Bacon’s 1625 essay ‘On Simulation and Dissimulation’ discussed how the manipulation of surface-depth dynamics were important components of Tudor and Stuart realpolitik. Likewise disguise and guile, the outward surface that belied the inner, was a compelling metaphorical trope. Early modernity was fascinated with the lie, its beauty and horror. And the lie was a thing that always had something of the material to it, a grossness.[2]  However, over the past decades, early modern studies has been intensely focused on interiority, the apparently fathomless depths beneath. The essays here aim to focus attention on the ways that the surface mattered in the literary, musical and the scientific, as well as the material experience of the era.

[3]  The early modern period’s well-known interest in the Ovidian myth of Narcissus helps to articulate that fascination. The first vernacular episode from the Latin mythopoesis to be published in Elizabethan England, the anonymous The fable of Ouid treting of Narcissus, translated out of Latin into Englysh mytre, with a moral there vnto (1560), describes how the titular youth, exhausted by his flight from Echo’s advances, stops to rest in a conventional locus amoenus:

    _A sprynge there was so fayre, that stremes like sylver had
whiche nether shepardes happe to fynde, nor gotes that vpwarde gad
__Uppon the rocky hyls, nor other kynde of beste,
wyth flashyng feete to foule the same, or troble at the leste,
__Wherin them selves to bathe, no byrdes had made repare,
nor leffe had fallen from any tree, the water to appeare,
__About the which the grounde had made some herbes to growe
and eke the trees had kept the sunne, from commynge doune so lowe

As Narcissus stoops to drink from the spring, the unsullied water provides the ideal conditions for his tragedy to unfold: ‘the image of hys grace/ therewyth he rapt, fell streyght in loue, wyth shadowe of his face’ (Aiiiv). In the moralised tradition of Ovidian translation, and as is well known, the tale is often read as an allegorical warning against the dangers of self-love: Arthur Golding’s slightly later rendition starkly states ‘lyke a foolish noddye, / He thinkes the shadowe that he sees, too bee a lively boddye’ (1565: BIIIr). However, in the moralised drama between body and reflection, it is all too easy to miss the importance of the water and how Narcissus’ plight engages with early modern Europe’s attraction to surfaces and their significance for sensation, for selfhood.

[4]  In this way, sensual efficiency depends on the interplay with surfaces. While its narrative core features a mythic meditation on sight and touch, ‘the presence of Echo adds a dimension of hearing, sound and voice to the scene’: Ovid’s tale is thus ‘intensely multi-sensory’ (Moshenska 2014: 94) and, accordingly, suffused with surfaces (Kenaan 2014: 50) from the evidently physical to the profoundly auditory. Indeed, Ovid’s myth recounts Narcissus’ misrecognition while toying with its audience’s understanding of mise-en-scène. In typical Ovidian fashion, Narcissus’ pause in a ‘pleasant place’ ultimately refutes what its surface suggests (Phillips 2014).

[5]  Leon Battista Alberti’s De Pictura [On painting] (1535) engages with the poem’s self-reflexive qualities. Alberti recognised the Ovidian myth as an aetiology of figurative art. ‘I used to tell my friends’, Alberti explains, ‘that the inventor of painting, according to the poets, was Narcissus…What is painting but the act of embracing by means of art the surface of the pool’ (cited in Ruffini 2011, n.6; see also Kennan 2014: 49). This may be the case when a rapt Narcissus observes that the ‘lytle water here, dothe seuer vs in twayne’ (Aiiiir)’. Here, as Hagi Kenaan shows, ‘the mirroring surface’ presents ‘the enabling condition of visual illusion’ (2014: 48). Yet,

it is Narcissus’ tears, disturbing the pond as they fall, that draw our attention to his reflection. This troubled surface provokes a peculiarly destructive form of self-knowledge by allowing Narcissus to see that he is looking at an imago. (Enterline, 1995: 1)

Lynne Enterline’s focus is firmly on The Tears of Narcissus (the title of her monograph). Even so, her compelling description of the youth’s realisation brings the agitated water into view. Reading with the surface means that Narcissus is not guilty of neglecting insight. Rather, he is guilty of not understanding the nature of surface, and of sheen, the mutually insubstantial image in ripple and beauty in transcience. In phenomenological terms, Narcissus is at odds with the life-world he inhabits. At the same time, Ovid’s myth bespeaks the centrality of the surface for early modern thought.

[6]  As each of the essays in this special issue suggests, the period’s enchantment with and concerns for surfaces is wide-ranging. Helen Smith’s essay explores the ways in which the surface of paper engrossed the attention of writer after writer, its massy and material form as much as its capacity to generate metaphor. Taking her cue from Derrida’s suspicion of the ‘blank paper trope’, the essay explores early modern understandings of paper that might be plain, proverbially blank and passive, but which was also an object whose spongy volume and absorbency, and whose pliable multi-functionality exemplified the idea of the virtual, the latent potential of things. This was a culture, Smith shows, in which paper was deployed in myriad ways – medical, culinary, artistic – beyond writing; it was a vital commodity, a product manipulated with oil, akin to cloth, sometimes layered, such that users, domestic, commercial and scientific, were regularly engaged in quasi-artisanal processes with this most malleable, as well as philosophical and poetic, of materials.

[7]  Anna Reynolds furthers this attention to paper, in her account of its recycling, or rather its very particular repurposing in the bindings of books, the pasted layers that might serve both practical purposes and be strategically demeaning, in the evident Tudor enjoyment of putting monastic waste to the servile work of flyleafs and pastedowns. She traces the dissolution and the scattering of manuscripts, the melancholy, sometimes ritual and sometimes accidental demotion of the material remnants of no-longer-sacred texts, and the acts of retrieval that saw in them the story of a precarious national history. Dealing primarily with John Leland and John Bale in the sixteenth century and the later attentions of John Aubrey to this same matter, Reynolds demonstrates how significant a set of memories inhered not just in things written, but in the rough touch of books.

[8]  It is clear that paper, its feel under the fingers and the tactility of engaging with it, mattered – any reader of a kindle, or indeed an online journal knows the difference, the thing missing. The electronic scroll is a lovely motion, but the turn of the page, Craig Farrell’s essay shows, is its own particular action, whose uses – unveiling, turning over a new leaf, variations in presentation – were well known and played upon by early modern poets, including Thomas Watson, Edmund Spenser and George Herbert. The physicality of poems that emerges, whose typographical tricks might echo and involve the reader’s hand and eye, speaks to a culture attuned to the material, and aware of the rhetorical value in the pause of the turning page. The poets here are shown to pay close attention to the print shop, to the appearance on the page and the reader’s engagement with the physical object.

[9]  Claire Canavan notes how early modern book production was not only lavish, but produced a large number of elaborately well-dressed books, embellished with covers that proved in turn irresistibly and emblematically attractive to painters, who regularly included them in their compositions. Books’ outer surfaces produced their own orchestration of symbolic meaning. The embroidered, the textile and the stitched were not mere ornamentation, but could work as their own hermeneutically challenging addition to the text itself. The textile cover, folded, pleated and embellished, was a rich interpretative resource, complementing and complicating the text, particularly the biblical text, in a culture with a ready sense of the emblematic, and which augmented the text and the reading experience with bookmarks and book-bags, whose ribboned, knotted and shredded fabric, the essay shows, were accorded exegetical as much as decorative weight.

[10]  With a keen focus on the discursive ramifications of the term ‘sur-face’ ‒ a word simultaneously connoting position, body and book ‒ Lucy Razzall examines how the title page is a singularly striking material and intellectual plane. In many ways, and in contrast to bindings, covers and the other pages that make up the rest of a book, she suggests that it is a ‘defining surface’: the title page delineates the contents of the ensuing text and the material circumstances of its production (for example authors, editors, printers, publishers, date and place of publication). Like the foregoing essays, Razzall is invested in materiality and tactility. At the same time, her discussion draws specific attention to the ideological dimensions surrounding the cautious translation of ‘surface’ in the Book of Genesis, from William Tyndale’s Old Testament to the King James Bible and a variety of creative uses of the ‘title leafe’ in William Shakespeare, The seconde part of Henrie the fourth (1600), Barnabe Rich, Faultes faults, and nothing else but faultes (1606), Thomas Dekker, A strange horse-race (1613) and John Taylor Eniautos (1653).

[11]  Moving from title-pages to literal and figurative vocal tracts ‒ and from England to Europe ‒ Richard Wistreich considers the relationships between singing and ‘the surface of sensual experience’ in the court of Alfonso d’Este II at Ferrara. Impelled by the Aristotelian notion of voice as ‘the impact of the inbreathed air against the windpipe’ (De Anima, 1993, 420b 27) and new materialist perspectives on early modern anatomy, Wistreich’s close reading of Giovanni Battista Guarini’s 1582 poem ‘Mentre vaga Angioletta’ (subtitled ‘Gorga di cantatrice’ [‘the singer’s throat’]) – explores the fluid interactions between literary and corporeal boundaries. By moving beyond the classical focus on human voice, syntax and grammar, this critical attention to philosophical and medical vocality provides a suggestive view of early modern physiological and emotive surface effects: the emphasis is on how, rather than what, a song might mean.

[12]  The relationship between bodies and surfaces is extended in Stewart Mottram’s discussion of Andrew Marvell’s writings. Taking inspiration from Nathanael Culverwell’s Spiritual Opticks (1651) and contemporary discourses of religious tolerationism, Mottram probes connections between the textual, the corporeal and the lithic. In so doing, Mottram examines tensions between materiality and immanence in poems such as ‘The Mower’s Song’, ‘The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn’ and, most notably, his epitaphic texts. Designed to record the deceased’s lifetime achievement and thus forming a key component of the early modern sepulchre’s composite surface, Mottram’s essay shows how the combination of Marvell’s Socinianism and marmoreal engagements unsettle epitaphic veracity.

[13]  Kevin Killeen’s contribution to this special issue looks at early modern encounters with the newly available experience of the magnified surface, the microscopic abominations in which things that were to common sense smooth and placid proved to the scientific gaze – if it could be trusted – rugged and pocked. The surface was found to embody not the plain and the straightforward, but rather to be the most counter-intuitive and mysterious of entities. The discussions of microscopy in Robert Boyle’s and Henry Power’s ostensibly empirical enquiries produced objects which needed a new way of describing as much as mere description. Out of this, the essay argues, the seventeenth-century fascination with Lucretius and the very particular Lucretian ‘poetics of texture’ emerge, against which Margaret Cavendish’s vitalist natural philosophy took a brilliant and strange stand.

[14]  Taking a frankly twenty-first century approach, Hilary Hinds’ essay reflects on her own editorial engagement with the material surface of Anna Trapnel’s Report and Plea (1654). Motivated by Trapnel’s concepts of authorship and in the wake of modern practices where ‘the editorial gaze is not directed at the compass of complexities or depths of meaning of the work’ (Gabler 2009: 10), Hinds’ task turns on the relationship with the complex textual surface of seventeenth-century life-writing. To help articulate what she calls ‘the affective territory inhabited by editorial work’, Hinds deploys Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work on ‘paranoid’ and ‘reparative’ criticism. Here, Sedgwick’s binary terms and their respective alignments with reading against (‘paranoid’) or with (‘reparative’) the grain of the text are analogous with concepts of depth and surface. Thus, the editor can either search for hidden tensions or try to understand ‘the complexity of literary surfaces’ that asked to be ‘looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through’ (Best and Marcus 2009: 1, 9).

[15]  If Hinds demonstrates presentist concerns for the interpretation of early modern surfaces, Liz Oakley-Brown looks to William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (c. 1599) and its afterlives ‒ Paul Czinner’s 1936 film and Andrzej Krauze’s artwork for the Old Vic’s production (1989) ‒ to show how surficial thought itself is subject to history. Building on Razzall’s etymological interest, Oakley-Brown considers Shakespeare’s marked avoidance of the word and the ways in which the play’s modernist and postmodernist adaptations help foreground a cultural politics of surfaces. Shifting from England’s second Elizabethan epoch to its first and finally the extraordinary inter-war year in which George V, Edward VIII and George VI were each crowned the nation’s monarch, the comparative media of drama, film and image capture surface’s ideological freight.

[16]  In sum, the ten essays comprising Scrutinizing Surfaces in Early Modern Thought suggest how contemporary notions of surface ontologies add to our understanding of the period’s social milieu and its sensitivity to the material world. They demonstrate the era’s sensory engagements, with voice and stone, or with its newly profuse and most endlessly enigmatic material, paper. They show the ways in which early modern writing was alert to texture and the intricate, and the modalities of touch from the finger on cloth to the air in the throat. If this was an era that felt its duty was to plumb the self, to fathom the social and the philosophical in all their cavernous obscurity, it was no less a time attuned to the vertigo of the depthless. The articles here also conjure up ways in which those earlier superficial interests and anxieties underpin our own.


This special issue emerged from a conference held under the auspices of the Northern Renaissance Roses Seminar at the University of Lancaster, in collaboration with the University of York. We’d like to thank all the participants for two stimulating days and to acknowledge the generous support of the Society for Renaissance Studies and Lancaster University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Research Support Fund.

[1] This overview of the current field is indebted to Liz Oakley-Brown’s editorial collaboration with Rebecca Coleman for the forthcoming special section of Theory, Culture and Society on ‘Visualising Surfaces, Surfacing Vision’. [back to text]

[2] See further Mary E. Hazard (2000) and Helen Smith (2012). [back to text]


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Amato, Joseph. 2000. Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible (California: University of California Press)

_____. 2013. Surfaces: A History (California: University of California Press)

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Aristotle. 1993. De Anima: Books II and III ( with Passages from Book I). trans. by D. W. Hamlyn (Oxford: Clarendon)

Bacon, Francis. 1625. ‘Of Simulation and Dissimulation’, in The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall (London), sigs E1r-E4v

Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press)

Benthien, Claudia. 2002. Skin: On the Cultural Border Between Self and World. trans. by Thomas Dunlap (New York: Columbia University Press)

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Cahill, Patricia A. 2009. ‘Take Five: Renaissance Literature and the Study of the Senses’, in Literature Compass, Vol. 6, No. 5, pp. 1014-1030

Connor, Steven. 2003. The Book of Skin (London: Reaktion)

Crutzen, Paul. J. and Eugene F. Stoermer. 2000. ‘The “Anthropocene”’, in Global Change Newsletter, 41 (May), pp. 17-18

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Eklund, Hillary. ed. 2017. Early Renaissance Literature and Soil Science (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press)

Enterline, Lynne. 1995. The Tears of Narcissus: Melancholia and Masculinity in Early Modern Writing (Stanford: Stanford University Press)

Forsyth, Isla, Hayden Lorimer, Peter Merriman and James Robinson. eds. 2013. ‘What are surfaces?’, in Environment and Planning A: Themed Issue, Vol. 45, No. (5) (September), pp. 1013-1020

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‘A unique instance of art’: The Proliferating Surfaces of Early Modern Paper

‘A unique instance of art’: The Proliferating Surfaces of Early Modern Paper [1]

Helen Smith

‘Materials are materials because inventive people find ingenious things to do with them’
— Christopher Hall, Materials: A Very Short Introduction

[1] In an interview with Les cahiers des médiologie, ‘Paper or Me, You Know … (New Speculations on a Luxury of the Poor)’, Jacques Derrida declares: ‘I have never had any other subject: basically paper, paper, paper’ (2005: 41). Alert to the doubleness of what it means to write ‘on’ paper, Derrida literally sets pen to paper, but also writes ‘on the subject of paper, an actual paper, and with paper in mind’. The term ‘subject’ is not neutral: the history of paper, Derrida argues, is ‘a history tangled up with the invention of the human body and of hominization’ (43). Paper is, Derrida insists, ‘heavy with all the assumptions that … are sedimented down into the history of the substance or the subject … but also that of the relationship between the soul and the body’.

[2] These enfolded ‘papers’ form the subject of my own ‘paper’. I investigate the multitudinous uses of paper in early modern England with two aims: to challenge the prevalent notion of a “paper-short” society, and to go beyond the notion of paper as a surface for writing. For Derrida, it is precisely paper’s susceptibility to inscription that gives it depth: ‘Beneath the appearance of a surface, it holds in reserve a volume, folds, a labyrinth whose walls return the echoes of the voice or song that it carries itself’ (44). Derrida’s ‘paper, paper, paper’ is a playful inversion of surface and content, body and soul, haunted by the ghost of Hamlet’s ‘words, words, words’. Yet although Derrida remarks that paper has many uses – ‘remember there is also wrapping paper, wallpaper, cigarette papers, toilet paper, and so on’ (43) – this most stringent critic of logocentrism is insistently drawn to writing or printing paper by the allure of the ‘graphosphere’ (48), the inscriptive domain which, for Derrida, renders paper not simply a medium but a ‘multimedia’ substance (44). In the course of Derrida’s essay, the whiteness of the surface becomes the whiteness of writing: ‘spacing, gaps, the “blanks which become what is important,” always open up onto a base of paper’ (53).

[3] This article takes issue with the concept of the ‘writing surface’ on two fronts. On the one hand, it responds to Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass’s insistence that ‘the crucial quality of paper – its absorbency – eludes the dichotomy’ of surface and depth central to the idea of the book (1993: 280). Writing does not exist ‘on’ paper, but sinks into the page, in ways that, as we will see, were experienced by early moderns not only as a practical problem but as a compelling figure for thought. As Juliet Fleming puts it, in a stimulating reading of Derrida: ‘we will never have understood writing if we continue to think in layers, for “on” is only a special case of being “in” the world, a case that is locally stabilized but far from stable, and a fantasy more dominant than it should be, perhaps’ (Fleming, 2016: 141). On the other hand, I draw attention to the manifold uses of paper that have nothing to do with writing: the modes of knowing made visible when we attend to the transformations and possibilities of the surface in, for example, papier mâché, paper medicines, and paper models.

[4] Paper is always at once a real presence and an idea. ‘When we say “paper”, Derrida asks, ‘are we naming the empirical body that bears this conventional name? Are we already resorting to a rhetorical figure? Or are we by the same token designating this “quasi-transcendental paper,” whose function could be guaranteed by any other “body” or “surface”…?’ (52). This article explores these questions in response to specific early modern instantiations of paper and its tropes, arguing that paper formed both a practical and an intellectual resource. Early moderns looked into, as well as at and through, their paper, seeing it as a remarkable material and an instance of the changeability of matter. Restoring paper’s own capacity to fold, to create space and volume, I argue that its ‘multimedia’ potential is a function not of paper’s status as a support for writing but of its unique physical properties.

[5] This article opens by arguing for the close connection between paper and thought, with an emphasis on the act of writing. It goes on to offer a brief account of paper manufacture and circulation in early modern England, arguing that paper was considerably more commonplace than has been acknowledged. After exploring natural philosophical and medicinal uses of paper in section three, I conclude by examining some of paper’s domestic transformations, as the material of tricks and toys, and of decorative techniques. In each of its incarnations, paper is revealed to be an everyday wonder, an object of study and a subject of thought. Encountered outside the ‘graphosphere’ (though approached through the evidence of writing), paper is revealed as an endlessly proliferating, flexible, and generative substance.

‘This blank paper’
[6] The blank receptiveness of paper is a longstanding trope with a rich early modern heritage, ranging from Othello’s demand, ‘Was this faire paper, this most goodly booke, / Made to write whore on?’ (1622: K4r) to the 1635 translation of Vital d’Audiguier’s tragicomic Lisander and Calista, in which ‘Lisander finding Hippolita with a minde free and vnpossessed like a smooth white paper, writ in fiery letters the euerlasting progresse of his loue’ (Y1v). The routine gendering of this analogy is reflected in Thomas Cooper’s definition of the Latin ‘Charta’ as ‘Paper: a leafe of paper : any thinge conteynyng the discription of a place in picture: a mayde that had neuer childe: a booke’ (1565: T2r). The trope equally expressed the impressionability of infants, whether in Richard Baxter’s reflection that whilst children ‘are young their understandings are like a sheet of white paper, that hath nothing written on; and so you have opportunity to write what you will’ (1650: Aaaa2r), or John Locke’s insistence that the gentleman’s son he was engaged to tutor should be conceived of ‘only as white Paper, or Wax, to be moulded and fashioned as one pleases’ (1693: S3r).

[7] The Aristotelian heritage of the blank paper trope, with its connotations of inert matter and shaping form, is made apparent in David Browne’s The new invention, intituled, calligraphia, which explicitly uses the language of Aristotelian matter theory to chart the causes of writing, though Browne admits that his taxonomy is ‘more Metaphoricke than proper’ (1622: ¶¶¶8v). Ink, he argues, is ‘the Materiall cause of Writing … for as the paper is the subject whereon, so the Inke is the matter whereof’(¶¶¶¶1r). Browne uses ‘subject’ in a metaphysical sense, taking it to mean ‘the underlying substance or essence of a thing’, as distinct from its accidents (OED ‘Subject’, n. def. 5.). Along similar lines, Thomas Blundeville, writing in 1617, used paper as an instance of ‘apposition’ (juxtaposition or placing in contact): ‘when a thing sheweth what his owne qualitie or operation is, by being put or added to another thing … Inke being put to paper … will make it black’ (1617: O3v). In these definitions, we see what Derrida describes as ‘the indeterminate “base” of paper, the basis of the basis en abyme, when it is also surface, support, and substance (hypokeimenon), material substratum, formless matter and force in force (dynamis), virtual or dynamic power of virtuality — see how it appeals to an interminable genealogy of these great philosophemes’ (53). Imaginatively cast as what is below, paper’s significance expands until it becomes exemplary of substance itself.

[8] The potent metaphorics of writing were used to address a variety of theological and philosophical problems, from divine grace — ‘As my paper whereon I am writing, receaueth the inke passiuely, and bringeth nothing of it to the writing &c. Whence it followeth, that in those whome God effectually will renew, their will can make no resistance, as my paper cannot reiect my writing’ (S. N., 1622: Aa4v) — to the operations of memory: ‘the memorie remayneth a power passiue, and not actiue: euen as the blew and the white of the paper, is none other than a commoditie whereby to write’ (Huarte, 1594: F8v). These examples, which illustrate Derrida’s contention that the history of paper is the history of the subject, depend upon the imaginative inertness of paper; paper’s very ‘baseness’ is what allows its structural and imaginative power to flicker into view.

[9] Near the beginning of ‘Paper, or me, You Know’, Derrida declares ‘There is no need to trust blindly in all the discourses that reduce paper to the function or topos of an inert surface laid out beneath some markings, a substratum meant for sustaining them, for ensuring their survival or subsistence’ (42). If Derrida is suspicious of the blank paper trope because it reinforces a history of the ‘body-subject’ as an ‘immobile and impassible surface’, we may distrust the figure for more mundane reasons. In Shakespeare’s First Folio, Othello’s question is punctuated with an additional question mark: ‘Was this faire Paper? This most goodly Booke / Made to write Whore vpon?’ (1623: vv2r; figure one). In this instantiation, Othello’s suspicions set not just Ophelia’s chastity but the epistemological status of paper in doubt, directing the attention of the reader to the surface of the book.

Figure one: Detail from William Shakespeare, Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, 1623), vv2r. Image taken from The Bodleian First Folio: digital facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, Bodleian Arch. G c.7. http://firstfolio.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/

[10] Despite the popularity of the blank-paper trope, the experience of paper in early modern England was seldom one of a passive substance, though the finest papers were beautifully smooth. Paper was understood as a surface that needed to be remade in preparation for use. Edward Topsell, in his Historie of four-footed beasts, reflected ‘Of the teeth of Oxen I know no other vse but scraping and making Paper smooth with them’ (1607: H5v), an observation that scratches the surface of the symbiotic relationships brought into being by the application of products including white leather and breadcrumbs to the page. In order to delete pencilled guidelines for writing, ‘that both the writ may the more viuelie [sic] appeare, and thine owne ignorance the lesse’, David Browne suggests rubbing them ‘softlie with a piece of Wheate bread’ (1622: B6r). Such practices might lead to a proliferation of cultures on the surfaces of culture: the Victoria and Albert Museum website warns that ‘Oily residues or small crumbs trapped in the paper fibres will support mould growth’ (see also Timmermann, 2013). Writing and some printing paper was treated with size, a glutinous substance made of parings of animal hide, in order to prevent the paper from absorbing too much ink (Barrett, 2012). Artists’, engravers’, and surveyors’ guides describe treatments to ‘strengthen the paper, … make the colour shew the brighter, and last, the better’ (Bate, 1634: R1r), or keep ‘the colours from sinking into the paper, … make them shew fairer, and keep them from fading’ (Salmon, 1672: P2v-P3r).

[11] Like the blank-paper trope, the experience of meeting with a ‘rough’, ‘hard’, ‘dry’ or ‘nought’ writing surface helped authors grapple with complex moral and philosophical knots. Pondering the meeting of nib and surface as an analogy for the relationship between preacher and audience, Nehemiah Rogers reflected:

respect must bee had vnto the Auditory, as the good Pen-man hath in nibbing of his Pen vnto the kinde of Paper he writes vpon, that it agree with it. Some hath a hard and crosse graine, which soone takes off the edge of a Tender Penn … Some paper againe hath a more fine, and tender graine, with which the Smaller Penn doth best agree: Your Ordinarie Paper is Pot-paper of a middle nature, and requires, that the nib be neither too soft, nor too hard, but brought vnto a meane (1632: C2v-C3r).

In a 1607 collection of proverbial wisdom, Nicholas Breton told readers, ‘Good Incke graceth a letter, but if the paper bee nought, the penne will doe no good’ (1607: D1v). The moral applicability of this commonplace is driven home in T. G.’s The rich cabinet (1616):

Reason vttred by a plausible tongue, makes perswasions passable with a popular eare; but iudgement that discernes substance from colour, the maske from the face, the forme from the matter, will easily find out the fallacie and error: euen as a good pen doth helpe and grace a good writer: but if the paper be nought, he shall make many a blot for a letter, or commit such slender faults as will bee easily discried by a Scriuener (R5v).

Writing in 1653, William Twisse emphasised how paper and user come together to form good or bad writing: ‘A good Scribe meeting with moist paper will make but sorry worke. The writing is from himselfe, the blurring from the moistnesse of the paper’ (Kkk2v). Twisse uses this truism to explain the knotty problem of whether sin comes from God: Aquinas, he explains, insists that though God acts upon the believer, the imperfections of embodied existence register themselves in the ‘blurring’ and blots of sin.

[12] The examples above are ‘matterphors’: ways of thinking which inhere in the physical and are ‘at once linguistic, story-laden, thingly, and agentic, … materiality coming into and out of figure’ (Cohen, 2015: 4). They register the intimate connection between the physical presence of paper and its imaginative power, asking us to understand the surface of the page as a figure for consciousness, a figure which always operates in conjunction with ‘actual paper’, a physical surface that inserts itself into the experience of writing. The Particular Baptist minister, Christopher Blackwood, appropriated ‘S. N.’s’ use of the blank paper trope to figure the operation of God on the will of the convert. ‘We will when we will, but God makes us for to will. … As my paper whereon I write, receives the ink passively, and brings nothing of its own to the writing’ (1654: G4r). Yet Blackwood’s conclusion complicates this figure: ‘being written upon, it becomes an instrument with my writing; and as I write more and more, so it still co-operates with me, though in it self there be no natural beginning of the writing’. The paper becomes, if not a collaborator, at least a participant, an object that works together (‘co-operates’) with the writer, and is at once paper — ‘real’ paper — and the devoted subject, opening herself to the will of God.

‘the want and dearth of good paper’
[13] There is a distinct irony in the fact that my sources for this ‘paper’ are overwhelmingly textual: paper lances, boats, boxes are hard to find in archives or museums; ditto samples of ‘oil of paper’, bloodied paper bandages, or the burnt remains that once protected the ears of a roasting hare. The range of early modern paper possibilities are preserved in two of paper’s most privileged instantiations: the codex and the manuscript letter. A similar privileging of script and print lies behind the orthodoxy that early modern England was a paper-short society.

[14] Three sources reveal something of the diversity of early modern paper. Between September 1567 and September 1568, the (parchment) London Port Books record the importation of 13,209 reams of ‘paper’ (presumably white paper of various sorts); 368 reams of ‘printing paper’; 54 reams of ‘writing paper’; 602 reams of ‘loose paper’; 275 reams of ‘cap paper’; 80 reams of ‘loose cap paper’; 160 reams of ‘small paper’; 3 reams of ‘coarse paper’; 4500 bundles of ‘brown paper’; 300 bundles of ‘paper’ (presumably brown); and 1200 paste boards; as well as 238 gross of playing cards; 12 gross of ‘paper combs’; 6 gross of ‘paper buckles’; and 50 ‘papers’ of ‘single mockado’ (a velour fabric).[2] Pins and threads were sold by the paper; a mid-seventeenth century manuscript treatise explains that English pins were initially of such poor quality that the manufacturers used papers with foreign makers’ names and marks in order to sell them. The writer went on to appeal for a suspension of customs duty on paper and the dye used to colour it blue (SP 16/438, f. 87).

[15] My second source, a 1650 Act for the Redemption of Captives, lists the duty levied on imports and exports, and includes paper fans, blue paper (also used for sugar), brown paper, cap paper, demy paper, ‘ordinary Printing and Copy Paper’, painted paper, pressing paper (for the fabric trades), ‘Rochell paper as large as demy Paper’, and royal paper (E7r). Similar lists for Scotland add ‘Morlax paper’, ‘Paper of Cane and Roan’ (1657: O1r), and ‘Gould papers, the groce’ (1611: E2v). Decorative papers became more common as the period progressed, with the first English patent for ‘paper for Hanging’ awarded to E. and R. Greenbury in 1636 (Dard Hunter, 1947: 481; see Fleming, 2013).

[16] Dating from significantly earlier, my third source comprises accounts for a banqueting house constructed for Henry VIII at Greenwich. ‘Wages to moulders of paper, day and night’ are listed alongside payments to joiners, sawyers and carpenters; construction materials include white paper (itemised three times), royal paper at 8d. a quire, ‘brown and white paper to make knots with’, ‘wax and roson for moulds of paper’, ‘gold paper, silver and green’, ‘shavings of white paper to make lions, &c., and the King’s arms’, ‘moulds of paper for the vaulting of arches’, and a payment of 8d. for ‘Cutting of gold paper, silver paper, and orsedye [bronze leaf] for the candlesticks’. Two days later, the Revels’ accounts included a ream of green paper, white paper at 2s. 4d. a ream, and silver paper at 2s. 4d. a doz. (Henry VIII: May 1527: 6-10). Paper continues to appear in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Revels accounts, used to create everything from unicorns to mountains.

[17] This is, of course, an elite source, as is an inventory describing stocks for a royal banquet in May 1526 which includes ‘8 “quayres” white paper, at 2d. the quire.½ bundle of brown paper, 6d.’, and ‘4 green paper, 6d. 4 white silver paper, 6d. 4 sinaper paper, 6d. One paper of fine gold, 2d. 1 quire white paper, 2d.’, much of it used in the creation of edible conceits (Henry VIII: May 1526, 1-15). The use of paper for culinary purposes extended down the social scale. Printed and manuscript receipt books (still relatively elite sources) did not just use paper (Leong); they included it among their ingredients and techniques.

[18] In a list of necessaries for a banquet included in his Good housewives Iewell (1587), Thomas Dawson suggests the efficient domestic manager should equip herself with ‘Paper White and browne’ (C8r), while in The compleat servant-maid (1677), Hannah Wolley not only offers copious instructions for writing, including the art of letter-folding, but iterates numerous other uses for paper: preserving cherries; making cakes; candying and preserving flowers; making comfits; covering seeds or fruits with sugar; making marmalade of grapes; curing the bloody flux; toning down a red face; dying bone or quills; shaping starched lace; and — jarringly — preventing miscarriage. Wendy Wall has recently argued that early modern recipe books reveal ‘differently tactile ways that literacy might signify, and … dramatically expand the scene of literacy formation’, including the quite literal consumption of alphabetic forms (2016: 115). An attention to kitchen uses of paper similarly encourages us to re-think women’s — and men’s — relationship to paper products; cooks might have a fine sense of the grades of paper, their suitability for specific culinary and decorative occasions, and the utility of their particular properties. Instructions ‘To make Spanish Biskit’ in Elizabeth Fowler’s late seventeenth-century cookbook, tell the reader to ‘take wafer paper & lay in the thing If you dissine to bake it in it … set them in the ouen at the disscrestion of the baker’ (Folger MS V.a.468, fol. 67r-v). Rather more precisely, a seventeenth-century manuscript receipt for ‘bisket’, attributed to ‘Mrs E: A:’ tells cooks that the ‘oven must be soe hot as to turne a peece of white paper browne’ (Folger MS V.a.8, fol. 110).[3] Similar principles underlay instructions for secret writing: letters composed in orange or lemon juice had to be warmed in order for the writing to be revealed. Far from being paper-short, early modern England was a society in which diverse kinds of paper circulated, and were used for a wealth of purposes.

[19] At least some of that paper was produced domestically. Wynkyn de Worde’s edition of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s De proprietatibus rerum (1495) celebrates its own ‘bryght’ pages with a closing rhyme:

And John Tate the yonger Ioye mote he broke
Which late hathe in Englonde doo make this paper thynne
That now in our englyssh this boke is printed Inne ([pp1r]).[4]

Though Dard Hunter suggests that Tate’s enterprise quickly failed, in his will of 1507, Tate bequeathed 26s 8d of ‘whit paper  … of my paper mill at Hertford’ to Thomas Boll and instructed his executors to sell the mill ‘with all the commodities concerning said myll to the moost advantage’ (Hunter, 116), suggesting it was still in operation. Later evidence appears in William Vallans’s poetic celebration of the River Lee, which records that ‘In the time of Henry the eight [i.e. VII] viz. 1507 there was a paper Mill at Hartford, and belonged to Iohn Tate’ (1590: C1r ; see Hills, 1988: 5-12).

[20] The need for domestic paper manufacture was a recurring theme: in 1538, an anonymous writer argued for a monopoly on bible printing, which might be contingent upon the printer being ‘bounde to bylde a paper myll or twayne … I thynke ii paper mylles wolde make as moche paper as wolde serve all the prynters in Englande’ (SP 1/242, ff.132r-v). Between 1554 and 1559 a mill may have been in operation at Fen Ditton in Cambridgeshire (Jenkins, 1958: 159). Another short-lived paper mill was founded by Sir Thomas Gresham on his estate at Osterley in around 1577, but recorded as ‘decaied’ by John Norden in 1593 (F3r). It may have been these ventures to which the stationer Richard Tottell referred in 1585 when he set out his plans to erect a paper mill, complaining at ‘the want and dearth of good paper in this Realme and also the disceite that is used Dailye in makeinge therof’, an intriguingly self-contradictory statement. Blaming foreign competition, Tottell declared that French paper merchants had undermined previous efforts by buying up ‘all our ragges’; bringing in ‘greate aboundaunce of paper’ and selling it at a loss; and harassing the workmen (SP 12/185, f. 172). There is no evidence that Tottell’s scheme came to fruition.

[21] A mill was founded at Dalry in Scotland in 1590, continuing in business until around 1605. In that same year, Robert Stansbye, Randall Wood, and John Zelldre, papermaker, leased land from John Goaydon in County Kildare to build the first Irish white paper mill (Pollard, 2000: 235; 547). A letter of June 1592, written by Archbishop Loftus, introduced Nicholas as a man broken by a run of ill fortune which included having taken ‘in hande a woorke that hath muche disabled him, the buyldinge of a paper mill’ (SP 63/165, f. 159). A second Scottish papermill was started c. 1652 at Canonmills, on the Water of Leith, and continued until at least the 1680s (Thomson, 1974: 9-11).

[22] Also in 1590, John Danett, deputy muster master, wrote from Dublin to Sir Thomas Williams, complaining that ‘paper is heere very deere, very scante & very badd. neere Ivie bridge [London] dwellinge. Mr Spilman a jeweller & maker of paper where it maye be bought for vs vjd the realm very large, very good’ (SP 63/156, f. 4r). It was John Spilman, Goldsmith to Queen Elizabeth, who founded the most significant sixteenth-century white-paper mill, in 1588. In October of that year, Sir Francis Walsingham issued a warrant to Justices of the Peace requiring them to prevent the High Germans ‘that be work men wth Mr Spilman her maties jeweller in his paper mill’ from leaving the country (SP 12/217, f. 114). A 1589 patent, renewed in 1597, granted Spilman a monopoly on buying or dealing in rags ‘fitt for making all sorts of white paper’, and decreed that all paper-making, including in mills ‘alreadye made erected or used for broune paper’, could only take place with Spilman’s licence (C 66/1331; CSPD, vol. CCLXIV, 7 [12], July 4 1597). A ‘letter of assistance’ issued by the Privy Council in 1591 required ‘all publique officers’ to assist Spilman in maintaining his monopoly (PC 2/19 f. 290). In 1600, Spilman complained to the Privy Council that John Turner, Edward Marshall, and George Friend had ‘lately erected a paper mill’ in Buckinghamshire, gathering the ‘best and finest stuff … wherewith your Supt doth use to make the white writyng paper’, for want of which ‘your Supt mills are often in danger to stand still’ (SP 12/276, f. 6r); he subsequently complained that ‘this Petitioner is forced to make brone paper when otherwise he would make writyng paper’ (f. 6v), though it remains unclear what kind of paper his competitors were manufacturing. The following year, Francis Bacon reported to Lord Keeper Egerton that he had judged a case lodged by Marshall and Robert Style against Spilman, and adjudicated that Style must ‘surrender upp his lease and that he enter into bonde not to intermeddle in buyeng or providing any stuffe for the making of paper or buylding using or keeping any paper mill’ (SP 12/282, f. 16).

[23] Spilman was also involved in a dispute with the Lord Mayor and aldermen of London over the collecting of rags in 1601 (SP 12/279, f. 164). In combative mood, the City authorities replied that they had been forced to take action as Spilman’s rag collectors ‘ranged abroad in every street, begging at men’s doors’ (f. 165r). Moreover, they complained, Spilman’s claim to novelty was ‘an error; for others before him have performed the same, and erected paper mills at Osterby, near this city, at Cambridge, Worcestershire, &c.’. No further news of Spilman’s mill appears in the State Papers until, in March 1617, he was granted a patent for making ‘a new and more pleasant kind of playing cards’ (CSPD, vol. XC [116]).[5] The City’s emphasis on the commonplace nature of Spilman’s activity, while undoubtedly rhetorically motivated, deserves to be taken at least as seriously as Spilman’s insistence on his mill’s exceptional status. By 1640, however, when Endymion Porter, John and Edward Reade, and John Wakeman applied for a patent ‘for the sole workinge, or milling & making [of white writing paper] in yor Kingdoms of England, Scotland & Irland for the forme of 57. yeares’ (SP 16/403, f. 111), Spilman’s mill and its predecessors appear to have been wiped from political memory; John Bankes, the Attorney-General, urged that the petition should be granted, ‘the Arte of making white writing paper being a New invention not heretofore used in this kingdome’ (f. 112).

[24] The memory of writing paper manufacture in England may have been still more ephemeral than the product. Yet, as the wranglings outlined above make clear, England’s history of paper-making was more continuous and more substantial than an emphasis on white paper allows. In 1598, the Earl of Nottingham signed a warrant which reported that Spilman had complained that ‘divers and sondry persons … have not onely … gathered and bought up the said stuffe and converted yt to the makeinge of browne paper, whereas yt would have made good wrightinge paper, but have erected divers milles for the makeinge of paper’, wording that suggests brown paper mills were well established in England (PC 2/24 f. 61); Shorter records the existence of thirty-eight English paper mills in the first half of the seventeenth century (1957: 29; see also Gavin, 2012; Luker, 2009).

[25] In 1641, Sir Edward Ford lambasted naysayers who objected to his plans to divert the River Colne at Rickmansworth. The protests included the plans’ impact on the paper-mills, which prompted Ford to declare that ‘the water taken for this Worke cannot possibly bee missed’ by the mills, which ‘are but seaven in all’ (1641: B3r). While it was in Ford’s interests to downplay the significance of the paper industry, that he felt able to dismiss seven mills as an insignificant handful suggests the degree to which the paper industry was thriving. Writing in 1655, an anonymous correspondent of Samuel Hartlib reflected that:

The finest paper we have in England, comes from Genoa and Venice …Much of this paper is gilded with Gold on the edges. Holland ships not onely furnish us with a thick strong white paper, which is commonly called Dutch paper, but also abundantly with a strong brown paper much desired by the Grocers. (Although at present, lesse is imported because we have many Paper-mils lately erected) (Anon, 1655: V3v).

Brown paper, then, which like waste paper was also pasted together to make cardboard and pasteboard, circulated in quantities which are impossible to quantify, alongside smaller quantities of white paper, and papers of every colour from red to gold. Though he was writing to hyperbolic ends, as part of a commendatory poem celebrating Spilman’s mill, Thomas Churchyard was not exaggerating when he demanded: ‘What man, or sex, or shape of worthy molde, / can paper lacke, but buies it lesse or more?’ (1588: C4v). If not entirely everyday, paper was, at the least, a familiar and flexible material, with a range of uses extending far beyond the textual.

‘A Unique Instance of Art’
[26] According to Francis Bacon, it is precisely the commonplace nature of paper that should make us alert to its remarkable qualities. In his Novum organum (1620), Bacon calls on his contemporaries to take special notice of ‘Monadic cases of art’ [things which are unique to themselves]. Arguing that ‘things which really should evoke wonder because of the inherent difference of their species compared with other ones, nevertheless attract little attention if they are in everyday use’, Bacon turns to an example which is close to hand: ‘For example, a Monadic instance of art is paper, a thing extremely common’, not least on the desk of a civil servant and natural philosopher (305). Bacon is struck by the properties of paper, and in particular its flexibility. The cellulose fibres of paper mean that it can be crumpled or folded and retains its shape once creased; it can be stitched, pinned, or cut with remarkable precision; it remains firm and in distinct sheets when dry, but becomes weaker and moldable when wet; and it can be rolled or layered, increasing its strength and thickness.

[27] In this reflexive moment, Bacon both invites us to speculate upon the nature of paper, and makes us alert to the substance of the book we are reading. Contrasting it to other artificial materials, Bacon describes paper as ‘a tenacious body which can be cut or torn, and so imitates and practically competes with any animal hide or vellum, or any plant leaf, and suchlike works of nature’. At least in some of its early modern incarnations, this contrast may have struck the reader in immediate, haptic terms: Newberry library VAULT Case folio B 49 .059, for example, is bound in vellum, allowing for immediate comparison between the book’s fine paper and animal skin.

[28] Early moderns were alert to the literally material histories of their texts. In his encomium to Spilman’s paper mill, Churchyard celebrates the quasi-magical process through which ‘sundry secrete toyes, / makes rotten ragges, to yéelde a thickned froth’, which is stamped, washed, and dried to form paper (1659: D1v). Reflecting on writing paper’s passage through ‘many handes’, Churchyard notes it is ‘A wonder sure, to see such ragges and shreads, / passe dayly through, so many hands and heads’, a trope which aligns the constitutive matter of the paper — its rags — with the diverse compositions written upon it. Lothar Müller notes that ‘the contrast between paper’s base origins and its lofty calling is a common motif in the texts accompanying visual depictions of papermakers and paper mills in early modern books of trades’ (2014: 49-50). A frequently reprinted 1659 translation of the Czech philosopher Comenius’s textbook, Orbis sensualium pictus, includes a compressed illustration of paper’s history and manufacturing techniques (figure two).

Figure two: Johann Amos Comenius, Orbis sensualium pictus (London: J. Kirton, 1659), N6v-N7r. Reproduced by kind permission of Dr Williams’s Library, London.

[29] In Abraham Cowley’s The guardian (1650) paper’s material history takes on a moral valence, eliding contents and substance, as Truman threatens to burn an unfortunate letter:

Unhappie paper, made of guilty linen.
The menstruous reliques of some lustful woman:
Thy very ashes here will not be innocent,
But flie about, and hurt some chaste mens eyes (C3r).

The past uses of the paper’s ingredients inhere in its volatile remnants; it is not the writing Truman blames, but the stuff. This is paper as ‘matterphor’, a material history that continues to figure in an imagined future. In a play concerned with the discrepancy between intention and reception, it is notable that Aurelia disguises herself with a paper mask: ‘Were not you the vertuous gentlewoman with the brown paper-face, that perswaded me to it?’ (C2r), asks Dogrel, collapsing together Aurelia’s disguise and her body.

[30] Perhaps the best-known celebration of paper manufacture comes in John Taylor’s 1620 The praise of hemp-seed, in which the poet declares:

But paper now’s the subiect of my booke,
And from whence paper it’s beginning tooke:
How that from little Hemp and flaxen seeds
Ropes, halters, drapery, and our napery breeds,
And from these things by Art and true endeuour,
Al paper is deriued, whatsoeuer (1620: D4r).

Taylor provides a history and ethnography of paper in a series of relentless puns that demonstrate his alertness to the grades and varieties of paper in circulation. In a more sombre register, Henry Vaughan meditated upon his book, reminding God:

Thou knew’st this papyr, when it was
Meer seed, and after that but grass;
Before ‘twas drest or spun, and when
Made linen, who did wear it then: (G8v)

Drawing attention to the early modern page’s history as recycled rags, de Grazia and Stallybrass suggest that the ‘Renaissance book [is] a provisional state in the circulation of matter’ (1993: 280). For Vaughan, whose understanding of the formation of paper is distinctly lacking in detail, this is a moral lesson: his perishable pages are intended to remind their reader of her own corporeal provisionality.

[31] In a stimulating reading of Vaughan’s poem, Joshua Calhoun observes that the browned pages we encounter in rare books libraries are less likely to be discoloured by age than by the muddy or silted water used in their manufacture. Calhoun points out the ‘network of flecks and fibers’ embedded in early modern paper: vegetable fibres, ‘shives’ (husky fragments of the flax stalk), and scraps of cloth persisted through their transformation into cloth and then paper (2011: 332-3; on the connections between paper and plants, see Knight, 2009: 8-10). Describing the bookworm, Robert Hooke speculated that it finds, ‘perhaps, a convenient nourishment in those husks of Hemp and Flax, which have pass’d through so many scourings, washings, dressings and dryings … ; the digestive faculty, it seems, of these little creatures being able yet further to work upon those stubborn parts, and reduce them into another form’ (1665: Ff1r-v). Hooke’s deductions, which register the shifting forms of the essential matter of the flax, offer evidence that attentive book-users were alert to the presence of shives and fabric, and also remind us that paper was an object of natural philosophical and alchemical inquiry.

[32] In 1670, Daniel Cable translated (the possibly fictional) Valentinus Basilius’ alchemical tract Of natural & supernatural things, which charts the progress of seed to flax to fabric to paper. The full title of his translation, which promises to reveal ‘the first tincture, root, and spirit of metals and minerals, how the same are conceived, generated, brought forth, changed, and augmented’, suggests how paper could be read as representative of the transformations of matter. ‘When this Linnen is quite worn out’, Basilius tells us, ‘the old Rags are gathered together, and sent to the Paper-Mills’ (1670: H4r). But this is not the end of his material history:

If you lay Paper upon a Metal or Glass, kindle and burn it, the vegetable Mercury comes forth and flies away into the Air, the Salt remaines in the ashes and the combustible Sulphur which is not so quickly consumed in the burning, dissolves to an Oil … This Oil hath in it a great fatness, which is the Matter of the Paper, contained originally in the Seed of the Flax; so that the last Matter of the Flax which is Paper, must again be dissolved into the first Matter … that so the first may be made of the last, and the ground-work revealed, so the Virtues and Operations known by the first (H4v).

Whilst his insistence that ‘the first may be made of the last’ expands Basilius’s observations into biblical time, his emphasis on the persistence of the essential matter of the flax-seed in the paper asks us to understand the transformations of flax, cloth, and paper as changes of form rather than radical metamorphoses.

[33] Numerous texts, from at least as early as Thomas Lupton’s A thousand notable things (1579), contain recipes for oil or spirit of paper, a substance that reminds us that early modern paper was greasier — more skin-like, as Bacon notes — than its modern counterparts. Published in 1686, Nicolas Lémery’s instructions drive home the extent to which paper was a tool of the experimental method, as well as its subject: burnt paper is filtered through ‘a coffin of brown paper’ to produce ‘a thick, black, and il-scented oil’ (Cc2r; this recipe does not appear in earlier editions). Paper was used as a filter and to create rolled tubes and tools: Hannah Wolley, for example, recommends that those who suffer from ‘an extream Rheum falling from the Head’ take the smoke of balsam and red sage ‘through a paper tunnel into your mouth … every morning till you find a Cure’ (1674: B9v), and, in instructions to make ‘Sea-Green’, instructs the reader to let an ounce of verdigris boiled with a pint of white wine ‘drop thorough a double Brown-paper’ (D8r).

[34] Lémery observes that spirit of paper is ‘very acid’, a property which he attributes to ‘the many different forms which the flax, and canvas have received, in order to make cloth, and afterwards Paper’ (1686: Cc3r). The material history of paper has material effects: ‘oil of paper’ possesses the properties that it does precisely because of the multiple transformations undergone by the flax. Hugh Plat meanwhile insists that ‘the true spirit of wine’ can only be distilled by using ‘the finest Paper you can get, or else some Virgine parchment’ (1602: E1v), whilst the recipe to amend an inflamed complexion included in A choice manuall, attributed to the countess of Kent in 1653, calls for white paper, literalising the trope of a red and white complexion (M6r).

[35] Where Basilius notes that oil of paper makes ‘a good Medicine for dim and defective Eyes’, Lémery suggests that it ‘has some use in Physick: the oil is good for deafness, whilst the fumes of burning paper relieve hysterical women’ (Cc1v-Cc2r). Paper was an essential ingredient for both the domestic and the professional medical practitioner. In 1678, Moyse Charas described the indispensable contents of The royal pharmacopoea, which included ‘Marble, Porphyrie, Sea-shells, divers Stones and Jewels, certain Horns, several Bones, divers Shells, as also the Eggs and Skins of some Animals; Woods, Roots of Trees, Shells of certain Fruits, Woollen and Linnen-Cloths, Silk, Hemp, Flax, Rind of Trees, Horse-hair, Ropes, Pack-thred, Paper; divers Earths, and Sands, Glasses, Chrystals, Bitumens’ (G4r). Rendered exotic through its affiliation with this diversity of ingredients, paper, Charas tells the reader, is used ‘to filter several Liquors, to cover bottles, pots, and to wrap up several Medicines’ (G4v). The drying properties of paper aided the cure of those who suffered such painful diseases as ‘ulcers engendred in the priuie members’ (Barrough, 1583: M4v).

[36] Paper medicines were made at home: one cure for ‘children that bee broke’ instructed parents ‘Take white Paper, and chawe it well with your teeth, and make thereof a plaister, as great as wil couer al the broke, binde it in a swadle band with a linnen clothe’ (Ruscelli, 1562: H4r). In a rather more literal sense than Derrida intended, the history of paper becomes the history of the body, creating a surface that imitates and heals the skin. Paper plasters, as well as cloth ones, were frequently recommended, and the flaxen composition of paper may have made the two interchangeable; Joseph Blagrave suggested that ‘the young Chirurgion’ must always carry plasters ‘ready spread upon cloth or paper’ (1585: T6r). For haemorrhoids, the Countess of Kent suggested laying powdered burnt cloth on brown paper, ‘and with spittle make it Plaister-wise, and lay it to the place’ (1653: I4v-I5r). Thomas Bonham’s plaster for a toothache, set out in a book which interleaves its printed contents with blank paper pages to allow for notes and additions, calls for doubled gray paper (1630: Ee4v); Robert Boyle suggests honey spread on Cap-paper ‘For an Outward Contusion’ (1692: D2v); and ‘T. C.’ treated migraines with egg and flax laid upon russet Paper (in the same recipe suggesting ‘a fold of russet paper or els of linnen’ should be put between the medicine and the skin; H4v). In the work of the minister John Edwards, these practices lend a distinctly material charge to his wish that his book might cure the reader of sin: ‘O that this Paper might prove a Plaister to draw it!’ (1578: A2r).

[37] Less scrupulous parents, according to the physician John Jones, might mould their children, not as if they were paper, pace Baxter and Locke, but with paper: Jones accused ‘ouer curious and daintie Dames’ of altering their children’s bodies by binding them in ‘Brasers, Wastes, or bodies, made eyther of paper bordes, plate, or Cardes, &c. to make them slender’ (1579: G2v). Some invalids may even have sported paper prosthetics. Ambroise Paré suggested that ‘such as want their eares, either naturally or by misfortune’ should have another ‘made of paper artificially glewed together, or else of leather, and so fastened with laces, from the toppe or hinder part of the head, that it may stand in the appointed place, and so the haire must be permitted to grow long’ (1634: Ddd6r).

[38] If paper was a subject of study for the natural philosopher, it was also a powerful tool which attained some ingenious shapes. In 1582, the library of Henry Fitzalan, twelfth earl of Arundel, was described as being enviably stocked with ‘books on the arts, philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine, mathematics, theology and history, and spheres, globes, bronze and paper instruments of all kinds’ (Dent, 1962: 59). Later in the period, members of the Royal Society made use of the handiness and flexibility of paper in a range of tools. Samuel Pepys lamented in July 1668 that ‘the month ends mighty sadly with me, my eyes now past all use almost; and I am mighty hot upon trying the late printed experiment of paper Tubes’, an account of which had appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Pepys, July 31, 1668; Royal Society, 266-67).[6] A few days later, he reported himself ‘mightily pleased with a little trial I have made of the use of a Tubespectacall of paper, tried with my right eye’ (11 August, 1668; see Wilson et al). Robert Boyle is frustratingly coy in mentioning, in 1669, ‘a little Instrument of Paper’ which ‘that Sagacious Mathematician Dr Wren’ rustled up for him ‘with great dexterity as well as readiness’ in order to demonstrate the efficacy of the air-pump. The nature of this device is unclear: Boyle claimed he would have made much greater use of it ‘had it not been casually lost when the ingenious Maker was gone out of these parts’ (T3v-T4r). In the same experiment, Boyle used a ‘small Label of Paper, about an 8th of an inch in breadth’ to create a ‘litle Instrument’ of feathers to test air resistance (T3r). A marginal note directs the reader to its visualisation in ‘Plate the Fig. the’ (in fact, Plate VII), an awkward reminder of the limits of the book as a technology of paper and print.

[39] Matthew Hunter has investigated the competitive cleverness of Hooke’s paper model of a telescopic micrometer, whose moveable paper patch allowed for the visualisation of both exterior and interior mechanisms. Printed by John Martyn, the model was ‘made as a multiple, to be printed, cut, pasted and sold’ (Hunter, 2013: 549). Other DIY paper tools were available: John Blagrave gave careful instructions to those who wanted to assemble the ‘singuler instrument’ he termed his ‘mathematical jewel’, assuring them that if they were careful ‘in the cutting out of the branches & barres, he wil serue you a long time to better vse then one of mettall’ (1585: ¶¶2v). Where Blagrave’s astrolabe formed part of the book which explained it, and has — at least in some cases — been cut and assembled according to his instructions (figure three), William Oughtred told readers of his Dialling performed instrumentally that ‘if any shall desire to have this Instrument ready printed off in paper for his use or practice, hee may bee furnished with what quantitie hee desire’s by William Hope Book-seller at the Blew Anchor’ (1652: E3v).

Figure three: John Blagrave, The mathematical jewel (London: Walter Venge, 1585), inside front cover. Cambridge University Library LE.28.5. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

[40] Outside of the English context, Johannes Kepler wrote to Friedrich I von Württemberg in 1596, enclosing with his letter a paper model representing the universe as it was mapped out (using geometric forms) in his Mysterium Cosmographicum, published in the same year (letter 30, pp. 65-7). Less appealingly, Johannes Goedaert recalled in his study Of insects that ‘I had a mind to try what wou’d become, of the putrid and corrupted Vrine of a man; I made a Funnell of paper, and so folded it, that no Fly or other Animall cou’d get into it: having infused into it oft times humane Vrine; I found some Worms to be bred in the folds, where the feces stayed’ (1682: R2r-v). This apparently self-generating matter stands for the generative presence of the crease or fold, multiplying the surfactual presence of the paper.

[41] A practical engagement with the properties of paper also characterised anatomical texts: Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome, printed in Basel in 1543, was the first book to use intricate layered paper manikins to reproduce the complexities of human body; a fashion that was quickly taken up across Europe, including in England (figures four and five).

Figure four: from Vif pourtraict des parties interieures du corps humain (Paris: chez Alain dematonniere, [1560?]). Wellcome Library L0055146 . © Wellcome Library, London.

Figure five: from Interiorum corporis humani partium viva delineation (s.n., [London, ca. 1559]). Wellcome Library L0055210. © Wellcome Library, London.

More and less intricate volvelles (paper dials with moveable parts) were used for astrological calculation, navigation, and prognostication (figures six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve; see Karr).

Figure six: Volvelle with unicorn, from Kartenlossbuch: Darinnen auss H. Schrifft vil Laster gestrafft, vnd heylsamer Leeren angezeygt werden (Strasbourg: Jacob Kammerlander, [1543]). Beinecke Library 1976 335. By permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Figure seven: Volvelle, from Martin Cortes, The arte of nauigation, conteynyng a compendious description of the sphere, with the makyng of certen instruments and rules for nauigations ([London], 1561). Beinecke Library Taylor 129. By permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Figure eight: Volvelle from The mariners mirrovr ([Amsterdam]: Jodocus Hondius, 1605), pp. 16-17. Beinecke Library 1976 Folio 46. By permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Figure nine: Volvelle, ‘Sfera facile per trovare in ogni tempo sia passato presete…’, from Antoni Carrarion, Opera astrologica perpetva ridotta secondo la nvova riforma dell’anno (Rome?, 1581). Beinecke Library 2004 Folio 20. By permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.


Figure ten: Volvelle, ‘Medianor, Meridies’, from Peter Apian, Cosmographicus liber Petri Apiani mathematici studiose collectus ([Landshutae, 1524]). Beinecke Library Taylor 57. By permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Figure eleven: ‘Verus motus der sonnen’, from Leonhard Thurneisser zum Thurn, Archidoxa dorin der recht war Motus, Lauff vnd Gang, auch heymlikait, wirkung und krafft, der Planeten, Getirns, vnd gantzen Firmaments … (Munster in Westphalen: Johan Ossenbrug auff Verlegung H. Herr Leonhart Turneyssers zum Thurn, 1569). Beinecke Library Rs5 T42 569. By permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.


Figure twelve: Unconstructed volvelle, from Giambattista della Porta, De fvrtivis literarvm notis vvulgo (Naples: Mariam Scotum, 1563). Beinecke Library Z44 2m. By permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

And numerous books, including Hooke’s Micrographia, made use of the simple technology of the unfolding inserted leaf to offer readers maps and engravings on a large scale, or unfurl the intricacies of an expanding table, often based on the proliferating subdivisions of Ramist logic (figures thirteen, fourteen, fifteen).

Figure thirteen: Robert Hooke, Micrographia (London: for John Martyn, printer to the Royal Society), foldout plate (Schema. XXXIII). Houghton Library EC65 H7636 665maa. Houghton Library, Harvard University.


Figure fourteen: Folded table from Abraham Fraunce, The lawiers logike (London: William How for Thomas Gubbin and T. Newman, 1588). University of Chicago Library BC151.F84. Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.


Figure fifteen: Staphylus, Fridericus, The apologie of Fridericus Staphylus counseeler to the late Emperour Ferdinandus (Antwerp: John Latius, 1565), fold-out before sig. Hh1r. Folger Shakespeare Library STC 23230. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0).

[42] Mathematicians too made use of the capacities of paper to fold, crease, slice and bow, in attempts to render complex abstractions concrete. In a guide to Euclidean geometry, Henry Billingsley insisted that ‘when there is in Geometry mention made of pointes, lines, circles, triangles, or of any other figures, ye may not concyue of them as they be in matter, as in woode, in mettall, in paper, or in any such lyke … But you must concieue them in mynde, plucking them by imagination from all matter so shall ye vnderstande them truely and perfectly’ (Euclid, 1570: B2r). Nonetheless, Billingsley quickly turns to paper models to make the essentials of Euclidean geometry accessible to his readers:

…if ye draw the like formes in matter that wil bow and geue place, as most aptly ye may do in fine pasted paper, such as pastwiues make womens pastes of, & then with a knife cut euery line finely …, if then ye bow and bende them accordingly, ye shall most plainly and manifestly see the formes and shapes of these bodies… [I]t shall be very necessary for you to have store of that pasted paper by you (Ss5r).

Billingsley celebrates the flexibility of paper, and its ability, when cut and folded, to render in three dimensions what his diagrams constrained to two. At the same time, Billingsley’s knowledge of the activities of paste-wives, along with his assumption that his readers will be intimately familiar with the moulded paper edges that supported fashionable headgear, blurs the distinction between the vogue for Euclidean geometry and the fashion for French hoods.

[43] The term ‘pasted paper’ occurs twenty-three times in Billingsley’s instructions, suggesting how necessary the work of folding was to the geometrical imagination. Billingsley’s instructions take the book out of itself, transforming a two-dimensional problem into an easily understood three-dimensional solution. The book itself participates in this dynamic, offering up its pages for cutting and folding (figures sixteen and seventeen). Paper stands in, repeatedly, for the idea of the plane or surface; its cuttable, foldable properties make it an indispensable tool for materialising problems as well as a conceptual tool for extrapolating ideas which attempt to go beyond the limits of matter.

Figure sixteen: Henry Billingsley, Elements of Euclid (London: John Day, 1570), Rr5r. B515 Eu3211, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.


Figure seventeen: Henry Billingsley, Elements of Euclid (London: John Day, 1570), Rr5r. Image courtesy of History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries.

Tricks and Toys
[44] Immediately after his encomium to paper in the Novum organum, Bacon reflects: ‘Again, among Instances of Ingenuity or of the Hand of Man, we must not entirely despise tricks and juggling. For some of them, though their use be trivial and playful, can still provide sound information’ (305). Solemn as Bacon’s tone may be, his reflection points to the degree to which the inventive paper practices described above shared common ground with ingenious entertainments and child’s play in their propensity to multiply the surfaces of paper through folding, creasing, rolling, cutting and moulding.

[45] Numerous sources suggest the widespread use of paper as a children’s plaything. To investigate the consistency of colours, Walter Charleton tells the reader of his Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltonia to ‘fold the Cloth, as Boyes do paper for Lanterns’ (1654: Bb1v); John Aubrey recalls a chalk-pit discovered by a boy who fell down it while chasing a paper kite (3.284); and Michael Drayton describes a personified world sitting with a lap full of ‘paper Puppets, Gawdes and Toyes, / Trifles scarce good enough for Girles and Boyes’ (V3r). Michel de la Serre writes of ‘castles of paper and cards, such as little children lodge their pety cares in’ (1639: H3r), and Bosola, in The Duchess of Malfi, despises bodies as ‘weaker then those / Paper prisons boyes vse to keepe flies in’ (1623: K1r). In The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania, Mary Wroth describes an errant ship: ‘vnguided she was, vnrul’d, and vnman’d, tumbling vp and downe, like the Boates boyes make of paper’ (1621: Lll3r). Thomas Edwards dismissed one attack on The second part of Gangraena as ‘a lance of brown painted paper, fit for children to play with’ (1646: Z2r), whilst Thomas Brown described children ‘making Durt-pyes, and snipping Paper’ (1690: E4v). And in a prefatory poem praising William D’Avenant’s Madagascar, Endimion Porter describes having seen

…a childe with Sissors cut,
A folded Paper, unto which was put
More chance, than skill, yet when you open it,
You’d thinke it had beene done, by Art and Wit: ([1638: A3v])

Whilst Porter’s poem explicitly contrasts childish ‘chance’ with a mature ‘Art and Wit’, an attention to the pleasures of paper-folding prompts us to think differently about the sensuous delights of intricate engagements with paper, from building geometrical models or paper instruments to the complex series of folds needed to close a letter (‘Letterlocking’). A seventeenth-century painting, in the style of Jacob Toorenvliet, shows four observers (women and men, children and adults) appreciating a delicate toy, designed to twist and turn in the breeze (figure eighteen).

Figure eighteen: ‘Watching a paper wind toy’, style of Jacob Toorenvliet 1640-1719), last quarter of the seventeenth century, British Optical Association Museum, LDBOA1999.178. © The College of Optometrists, London.

The figure in the foreground is pinching a pleated object between two fingers, probably a paper fan used to set the model moving. Letters around the edge of the model read ‘MEMENTO MORI’ and repeat the message in Dutch (‘GEDENCK TE STERV[EN]’), reminding the viewer that she is as fragile as this trembling globe.[7]

[46] Women were expert proponents of the paper arts. Wolley offers a veritable encyclopaedia of decorative paper-work, from decoupage to scroll-work. In the 1630s, Edmund Waller complimented ‘the Lady Isabella Thynn on Her exquisite Cutting trees in paper’ in a poem which plays on the blank-paper trope, claiming Thynn’s art in cutting as a kind of ‘writing’ that can engage with ‘Virgin paper’ ‘Yet from the stayne of inke preserve it white’. In full flattering mode, Waller distinguishes Thynne’s art from that of the writer or painter, collapsing the boundaries between artifice and nature in a quasi-blasphemous compliment:

For though a paynter boughs and leaves can make
Tis you alone can make ’um bend, and shake
Whose breath salutes their new Created grove
Like southerne windes, and gently makes it move (MS Rawl Poet 84, 113v-r).[8]

William Hicks’ 1673 London Drollery includes another poem in praise of paper-clipping, complimenting ‘Madam E.C’ ‘Upon her Curious Art in Cutting Figures in Paper; and other her Artificial Curiosities’. Drawing upon the conceit of an art that exceeds nature, Hicks suggests: ‘one would think your very Flowers do grow: / So well they’re cut, by your ingenious hand’ (D8v).), and ‘With the Clipping Tool, You to life do bring / To th’ Eye those things which seem inanimate’ (E1r).). Whilst Hicks’ emphasis is upon his addressee’s ingenious skill, both he and Waller are alert to the animacy of cut paper: its trembling responsiveness to its environment.

[47] Matthew Hunter opposes Madam E. C.’s awe-inspiring cutting to Hooke’s micrometer, arguing for the latter as a form of ‘materialized intelligence’ thanks to its ability to ‘solve puzzles and also undermine its own authoritative structure, prompting and stimulating new imaginings’ (2013: 550). Yet Hicks’ poem is testimony to its subject’s ability to stimulate ‘new imaginings’, and explicitly says that E. C.’s cut paper entrances the natural philosopher: ‘When Curiosoes see ’em, they’re at a stand’. The ‘curioso’ is the man of science, ‘an admirer or collector of curiosities; a connoisseur, virtuoso’ (OED, ‘curioso, n.’). Waller’s poem also appears alongside a number of Restoration poems in a miscellany of papers belonging to John Locke (Locke e.17 ), suggesting the philosopher’s interest in Thinn’s as well as Waller’s craft. Women’s paper-cutting was thus located within a realm of virtuosic play that blurred the bounds of nature and art.

[48] Various writers celebrated the ingenuity of paper arts. In 1661, Thomas Powell celebrated the ‘pretty Art’ of ‘a pleated paper’ in which ‘men make one picture to represent several faces’ (G6v). The fold or pleat offers the promise of simultaneous concealment and revelation, as well as what a modern-day paper practitioner describes as the ‘satisfying, rhythmic, repetition of light and shade’ (Jackson, 2011: 55), linking to the early modern fascination with perspective and optical illusion. A 1676 volume of Sports and Pastimes offered its users instructions for ‘A sheet of Paper called Trouble-wit’: ‘a very fine invention, by folding a sheet of Paper, as that by Art you may change it into twenty-six several forms or fashions’ (J. M., F2v; figure nineteen).

Figure nineteen: J. M., Sports and pastimes: or, Sport for the city, and pastime for the country; with a touch of hocus pocus, or leger-demain (London: H. B[rugis] for John Clark, 1676), F3r. Huntington Library Rare Books 64667.

Situated just before a table of contents which includes such gems as ‘To make sport with an Egg’, ‘To fox Fish’, and ‘To make one laugh till the tears stand in his eyes’, the ‘trouble-wit’ explicitly declares itself part of the ephemeral world of play. J. M.’s terms of ‘art’, ‘wit’, ‘invention’, and ‘ingenuity’ bring paper into the realm of the mechanical but also the marvellous. In its proliferation of surfaces, the trouble-wit troubles the surface of the page, inviting readers to imagine a book extending beyond itself in artfully elaborated folds.

[49] Like several of the examples describe above, Sports and Pastimes draws our attention to the book as a technology of folded paper. Half-way down page 40, J.M. apologises that his illustrations come to an abrupt end, leaving the keen maker to work out for herself exactly how to shape the paper into ‘the fashion of a Court Custard’ or ‘a Carriadge for a piece of Ordinance’. Explaining that he would have supplied the rest, J. M. complains ‘I am tied to six sheets at present, which will not contain them’. The folded and stitched paper of the codex is revealed to be considerably less flexible than the trouble-wit whose material nonetheless insists upon its continuity with the book’s pages. Yet perhaps this restriction might be generative, leaving open the imaginative possibilities of the fold. Derrida, writing about the ways in which the changed support for writing offered by the word processor changes the lines of his thought, concludes that his typographical experiments were precisely a product of his material: ‘without those constraints of paper—its hardness, its limits, its resistance—I wouldn’t have desired them’ (47).

[50] A 1649 collection of Naturall and artificiall conclusions … with a new addition of rarities, for the practise of sundry artificers, plays with the line between nature and art in more disturbing ways. Among other ‘diverting’ experiments, it offers instructions to ‘make of paper a Bird, Frog, or other artificial creature, to creep on the ground, flee, or run upon a wall or post’: ‘Take a piece of Paper, and cut it with a knife or cizers into the form of the Figure before … and stick thereon a Fly, Beetle, or what other such small voluble creature you shall think fit: and you shall hereupon behold a very pretty conceited motion’ (Hill, G2r). As horrid as this hybrid seems to the contemporary reader, Hill’s title language of the ‘natural and artificial’, as of ‘rarities’ and ‘artificers’, places it firmly in the realm of the wonderful, influentially described by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park (2001).

[51] Paper even found its way into the Wunderkammer, that space which R. J. W. Evans and Alexander Marr describe as ‘the emblem par excellence of early modern curiosity and wonder’ (2006: 10). Paula Findlen describes how books both stood in for and were incorporated into curiosity cabinets (1996: 29, 49, 59-60, 67-8), whilst paper was used to label and support objects. In his catalogue of the ‘natural and artificial rarities’ belonging to the Royal Society, Grew included ‘The WEB of a Bermuda-Spider … wound upon a Paper like Raw-Silk’ (1681: Z3v), and ‘The WATER-SCORPION’, which, he explained, was almost impossible to describe, it ‘being glewed to a Paper with the Belly upward’ (Z4v). Paper itself became an object of curiosity: John Tradescant’s catalogue of his collections (eventually the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum) lists a series of



cut in Paper by some of

the Emperours

Indian paper made of




-Rinds of trees. (D5r)

Grew, in turn, lists shells used ‘for the polishing of Paper’ (T1v), and bee and wasp nests, consisting ‘of the small Fibers of Plants, cohering, altogether as in Paper; as may be seen by a Glass. So that the Stuff may not be improperly called BEE-PAPER’ (Y2r), ‘An Example of the CHINA-Language … upon two sorts of China Papyr’ (Ccc1r), samples of ‘Paper or Pastboard-Money’ (Ccc4v) and ‘A FORREST, with a House at the end of it; and several Beasts both wild and tame, as the Lion, Unicorne, Boar, Camel, Stag, and a Dog pursuing him: all Cut in PAPYR, in the compass of about three inches square’ (Ccc1v-Ccc2r). In these examples, paper becomes an example both of nature (the bees’ nest; papyrus) and of exquisite art. Grew’s catalogue was published by subscription; in an advertisement issued in 1680, Grew promised that ‘whoever Subscribeth for Six English Copies in Quires … shall receive seven such Copies … upon very good Paper’.


[52] It seems fitting to conclude with the period’s greatest poet of paper, John Taylor. Apollo shrouing, a comedy composed for the scholars of the free school at Hadleigh in Suffolk, celebrates, if satirically, the boat Taylor crafted from brown paper in 1619 in an attempt to row from London to Quinborough in Kent. When Drudo laments, of Taylor, ‘Would we had him in Parnassus. Hee would stroake our Mistresses the Muses gently with his oare, and make their worships very merry, with his paper Wherry’, Lawriger responds: ‘Paper Wherry? you meane by a metaphor, that his papers and verses carry a mans attention as smooth as a wherry’. ‘No’, replies Drudo, ‘I meane his sayling in a Paper Boate’ (Hawkins, 1627: B8r). Posing the question of whether ‘we can still talk about such a thing’ as ‘actual paper’, Derrida asks ‘Can we speak here about paper itself, about the “thing itself” called “paper”—or only about figures for it?’ (50). Drudo’s bathetic collapse of Lawriger’s high-flying, or rather high-floating, metaphor bluntly asserts the presence of ‘actual paper’ in the midst of figuration.

[53] Paper’s propensity to be folded, creased, cut, crumpled and moulded calls into question our routine insistence upon seeing the page or sheet as surface, and of conceiving of paper strictly within the terms of the graphosphere. This article opened with Hall’s appealing aphorism: ‘Materials are materials because inventive people find ingenious things to do with them’ (2014: xiii). Ingenious people certainly did do inventive things with early modern paper, but they were able to do so because of its material properties: properties which were a source of philosophical and literary speculation, and practical use. ‘It is from the particularities of substances’, Hall goes on to say, ‘that uses arise’ (1). Taking account of paper’s propensity to be fashioned, to re-present or imitate a rich range of forms and functions, encourages us to think again about the matter of the surface: its durability, its ephemerality, and its transformations.

University of York


[1] Warm thanks to audiences at Lancaster, Cambridge and the IHR for their comments on earlier versions of this article, and to participants at the ‘Size Matters’ workshop at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, whose insights and expertise informed this ‘paper’ in its final stages. Thanks too to the anonymous reviewers for Journal of the Northern Renaissance for their thoughtful comments.[back to text]

[2] In quantitative terms, this translates to just over 2.2 sheets of white paper per head of the English population (though distribution was markedly uneven), alongside an undetermined quantity of imported brown paper, domestically-produced paper, and paper which persisted from previous years. In 1699, a ‘bundle’ was defined as two reams of paper; however, the size of a bundle prior to that date is not clear, and it is plausible that the 1699 figure was part of a project of regularisation, rather than an accurate reflection of quantities. In 1659, the translator of Comenius’s Orbis sensualium pictus instructed readers that twenty-five sheets made a quire, ‘twenty quires a Ream, and ten of these a Bale of Paper’ (N7r).[back to text]

[3] Elaine Leong also cites this receipt in a recent blog post: https://blog.shakespearesworld.org/tag/margaret-baker/ [back to text]

[4] For the standard accounts of English papermaking, see Coleman, esp. 40-88; Hills, esp. chapters one and four; Hunter, esp. 114-20; 224-57.[back to text]

[5] Heather Wolfe and Henry Woudhuysen are currently undertaking research into the uses of Spilman’s paper; see http://collation.folger.edu/2014/02/an-example-of-early-modern-english-writing-paper/. [back to text]

[6] Thanks to Kate Loveman for drawing this experiment to my attention.[back to text]

[7] I am grateful to Sjoerd Levelt and Freya Sierhuis for their help in deciphering this puzzle.[back to text]

[8] Thanks to Claire Canavan for drawing this poem to my attention. Variants appear in BL Add. MS 70454, f. 50v (the last two lines), Yale fb. 228/58 (‘Of a fair lady that cut free in paper’), U. Leeds, Brotherton Lt 36, f. 33v (‘Of a tree cut in paper’), All Souls, Oxford, Codrington MS 174, p. 237 (‘The Lady Isabella Thynne on her exquisite cutting trees in paper’), Huntington Library HM11619 (‘To the Lady Isabella Thynne on her exquisite cutting trees in paper’), Bodley Rawl poet 116, f. 64 (‘Waler to a Lady who sent him a Groue of trees cut out in white Paper’), Bodley Locke e.17, p. 80 (‘To my Lady Isabella Thinn cutting trees in paper.’), and Bodley Ashmole 1819, between no. 22 and no. 23 (‘Of cutting Trees in Paper, by the Lady Isabella Thynn, daughter of ye Earle of Holland.’), which records: ‘These verses I had from my Lady Dorothy Long of Dracot-Cerne(?) 1656. Her Lap. had severall other Copies of Mr Waller, wch he had not copy of, wch she lent(?) to ye Dutchesse of Beaufort at Badminton, which were never return’d’.[back to text]



Bodleian Library
MS Rawl Poet 84

Folger Shakespeare Library
MS V.a.8, Cookbook of L. Cromwell
MS V.a.468, fol. 78r-v, Cookbook of Elizabeth Fowler (fl. 1684)

National Archives
C 66/1331
PC 2/19
PC 2/24
SP 1/242
SP 12/185
SP 12/217
SP 12/276
SP 12/279
SP 12/282
SP 16/403
SP 16/438
SP 63/156
SP 63/165

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Serre, Michel de la. 1639. The mirrour which flatters not (E[lizabeth] P[urslowe] for R. Thrale)

Shakespeare, William. 1622. The tragœdy of Othello, the Moore of Venice (Nicholas Okes for Thomas Walkley)

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Wolley, Hannah. 1677. The compleat servant-maid (for T. Passinger)

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‘Such dispersive scattredness’: Early Modern Encounters with Binding Waste

‘Such dispersive scattredness’: Early Modern Encounters with Binding Waste

Anna Reynolds

[1]  A book’s outer layers speak a very particular language. This article moves wrappers, flyleaves, pastedowns and guards inward from the periphery, focusing in particular on the monastic waste that can be found in many early modern bindings after the dissolution of the monasteries. To decipher the meanings of these waste materials we need to imaginatively inhabit a world populated by torn and scattered sheets, in which pages from manuscripts and printed books regularly moved across a spectrum of legibility and abjection. These ‘leau’s’, according to John Donne, ‘may paste strings there in other books’ (1611: D4r), or, in the words of Thomas Nashe, might serve as ‘Priuie token[s]’ (read toilet paper), to ‘drie and kindle Tobacco in’, ‘stop mustard-pots’ and for ‘Grocers … to wrap mace in’ (1594: A3v). More than just ‘rhetorical flourishes’ (Smyth 2013: 127), these playful allusions to repurposing paper reveal an ecology characterised by ‘dispersive scattredness’ (Urquhart 1651: A6r), a paper-rich environment captured in Heather Wolfe’s study of ‘Filing, seventeenth-century style’ (2013: passim) and Tiffany Stern’s description of a city ‘covered in texts’, littered with loose playbills, proclamations and title-pages (2006: 87).

[2] Contrasting our tendency to conceive of books as two-dimensional objects, comprised of flat, white and featureless pages, early moderns encountered their books haptically, as three-dimensional, mutable assemblages of parchment, paper, wood and leather. Elaine Scarry, for instance, describes the ‘tactile features’ of a book as being ‘limited to the weight of its pages, their smooth surfaces, and their exquisitely thin edges’ (2001: 5). This is symptomatic of the manufacturing techniques that, since the 1960s, have made books more uniform. Glued rather than sewn, they are ‘paper brick[s], impeccably trimmed and squared’, with each bleached, wood-pulp page of almost identical thickness and whiteness (Bringhurst 2008: 95). Typography is now a digital process, with ink sitting on top of, rather than within, the surface of the page. Letterpress printing, however, sculpts the page, and chain lines and watermarks, visible in certain lights, remember the mould that a rag-based sheet was shaped in. On occasion, flecks of flax and fabric remain embedded in the page, leftover from its past life as linen (Calhoun 2011: 332-33). The quality of the rags determined the colour and coarseness of the sheet, just as the life of the animal determined the quality of a piece of parchment. Scars and blemishes on the animal’s skin are visible as gaping holes, and, if incorrectly treated, a network of veins might show through the translucent skin.

[3] Housed in our rare books libraries and archives, often having been separated and rebound and carefully catalogued, these books appear to be ‘discrete, self-enclosed units’; but these ordering techniques conceal what Jeffrey Todd Knight has described as the ‘relatively malleable and experimental’ nature of early modern books (2013: 4). They were often hybrid things, made of paper and parchment, manuscript and print (see figure one). These objects were, as Adam Smyth argues, always ‘incomplete’, prone to insertion, deletion, cutting and pasting (2012: 461). Book users played a crucial role in the life-cycle of books, commissioning bindings and rebindings, leaving them unbound, or using them as waste. Early moderns, then, were sensitive in different and more nuanced ways to the materials and processes of book-making and unmaking, and grounded their encounter with the book in the tactile and kinetic as well as the visual.

Figure one: Antoine de Chandieu’s De legitima vocatione pastorum ecclesiæ reformatæ (Morges: Jean Le Preux, 1583) bound with George Buchanan’s De iure regni apud Scotos, dialogus, authore Georgio Buchanano Scoto (Edinburgh: John Ross, 1579), The Huntington Library, San Marino, California 353529/30. The binding is a leaf of a service-book stuffed with multiple sheets of printed wastepaper. The rear flyleaf is a scriptural commentary. Reproduced by permission of the Huntington Library.

[4] Within this papery landscape, waste pages were far from an inert and invisible frame for everyday experience. Although a repurposed manuscript sheet might easily be construed as the mundane wrapper for more valuable contents (a hefty folio, for instance, or expensive spices), waste, this article will show, might come intermittently into focus for the early modern book-handler. The experience of waste paper and parchment moved from a scarcely perceived prop at one extreme, to a thoughtfully apprehended object at the other.[1] Though much of the experience of early modern waste matter must remain invisible to us, exceptional encounters are available within textual records. This essay begins with The Laboryouse Journey & serche of John Leylande, for Englandes Antiquities, printed in 1549 and heavily edited by John Bale. I argue that the authors’ drive toward the collection and cataloguing of monastic books is haunted by the tendency of objects to turn to waste, before moving on to a reading based in John Aubrey’s later manuscript work. Within The Naturall History of Wiltshire sits a ‘Digression’ which, I suggest, is uniquely ‘bio-bibliographical’. In it, Aubrey interweaves his experience of monastic fragments with an autobiographical and a national history.

[5] Leland, Bale and Aubrey are sensitive and responsive readers of waste. Their writings reveal an awareness of the histories contained within wrappers, pastedowns and flyleaves: these materials carry visible traces of their past vagaries in their tears and folds, in the fading of ink and the accumulation of dirt. Monastic waste performs multitemporally, or palimpsestically. The fragments are what Jonathan Gil Harris would term ‘untimely matter’: they are remnants that puncture the linearity of time, remembering a lost whole, be it a complete manuscript, a monastery library or a Catholic past, offering up ‘a play of multiple temporal traces’ that tell an object’s own story (2009: 8). They describe a world in which things rub against each other and wear away, narrating, to those who choose to read them, a trajectory of fragmentation and decay.

‘Their Dyspersed Remnaunt’: Monastic Libraries and the Dissolution
[6] The re-use of old books pre-dates the dissolution of the monasteries, but the ‘great cataclysm’ that took place between 1536 and 1540 intensified the process (Leland 2010: civ).[2] There was a dramatic influx of manuscripts into the wastepaper trade and, alongside it, a radical shift in the ways the practice of wasting could be conceived. Furthermore, Edward VI’s 1550 Act against Superstitious Books and Images led to a second wave of large-scale book destruction a decade later. What had for centuries been a gradual process of replacing redundant texts became violent and visible. Previously, the parchment surfaces of predominantly legal and administrative manuscripts had been scraped clean to make way for the addition of new ink, or had been wasted and replaced by printed copies. After the dissolution, these palimpsestic processes accelerated as service books, theological treatises, and historical chronicles came under threat. These ranged from contemporary sixteenth-century texts to the luxuriously illuminated twelfth-century manuscripts soon to be sought out by antiquarian collectors.[3] Additionally, a huge array of administrative documents and financial records, stored haphazardly around the monastery and rarely catalogued, entered the waste market, though this material has been largely neglected by book historians (Harvey 2002: passim). These objects were now valued according to their bulk rather than their contents: in 1549 John Bale described ‘a merchaunt man … that bought the co[n]tentes of two noble lybraryes for .xl. [40] shyllynges pryce’,[4] and in 1557 John Dee records purchasing a manuscript from the dispersed Duke Humfrey’s Library at Oxford ‘par le poys’ (by the pound weight) (Rundle 2004: 116).[5] This continued for several decades: in 1564, a Mr Seeres paid 24 shillings ‘for old Parchment books weying cc [200] pounde’ (Ker 1954; repr. 2004: x).

[7] It is impossible to quantify the number of manuscripts dismembered and destroyed during these decades. Few monastic catalogues survive from the decades leading up to the dissolution, and Henry VIII’s surveyors rarely included books within their inventories of monastic goods (Carley 2006: 256).[6] Neil Ker’s Medieval Libraries of Great Britain lists 5,200 library and service books extant from the eight hundred or more religious houses of England. Of these, 1,800 belonged to the secular cathedrals that remained relatively unscathed, leaving a total of 3,400 surviving books (Ker 1964: passim). In the words of another historian, ‘[t]hat tens, even hundreds, of thousands of library books and service-books were destroyed in the course of a few years is undeniable’ (Ramsay 2004: 138). Although these fragments are not as conspicuous as the crumbling stones of dissolved abbeys and monastery buildings, a visit to a rare books room reveals the fate of many monastic manuscripts. Ker’s Fragments of Medieval Manuscripts used as Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings lists approximately 2,200 bindings that contain monastic waste. Outside of Oxford, these manuscript pastedowns were used in books bound in Cambridge and at Canterbury Cathedral throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (McKitterick 1992:9; Watson 1988: 70).

[8] The university focus of Ker’s study should not distract from the widespread use of monastic waste in stationers and binderies across the country; although no other location offers so many manuscript pastedowns as Oxford, old books could be found dismembered and inserted into new books throughout the country and well into the seventeenth century. David Drummond, founder of Innerpeffray Library (ca. 1680), owned a 1654 folio bound with a medieval manuscript waste guard (see figure two), and the Huntington Library possesses a late-sixteenth or early-seventeenth-century sammelbände wrapped in a twelfth-century manuscript and with a waste printed vellum flyleaf (see figure three). Medieval manuscripts were most often used as guards or spine supports (see figure four), particularly towards the end of the sixteenth century.

Figure two: John Hall’s Of Government and Obedience as they stand directed and determined by scripture and reason (London: T. Newcomb, 1654), Innerpeffray Library, Perthshire, O5: a late example of the use of medieval manuscript guards. Reproduced by permission of Innerpeffray Library.


Figure three: The Compendious Treatise, of Nicholas Prepositas (London: John Wolfe, 1588) and André Du Laurens’ Discours de la conservation de la veüe (London: Felix Kingston, 1599), The Huntington Library, San Marino, California 618583: these volumes are bound in a twelfth century English manuscript wrapper and with a printed vellum flyleaf from the Sarum Missal. Reproduced by permission of the Huntington Library.


Figure four: A manuscript, parchment spine support probably removed from Nicolai Gerbelij Phorcensis, pro declaratione picturae siue descriptionis Graeciae Sophiani : Libri Septem ([Basel]: [s.n], [1550]), Innerpeffray Library, Perthshire E3; now slipped loose into the repaired binding. Reproduced by permission of Innerpeffray Library.

This was no doubt to conserve the supply of durable parchment waste, putting it to use in the area of the book that needed the most reinforcement (the spine), rather than as flyleaves and pastedowns. This eking out of a dwindling supply is perhaps behind the structure of several bindings in Bishop Cosin’s Library (founded 1668): a number of volumes contain wastepaper guards in addition to a combination of twelfth-century and contemporary waste parchment spine-supports (see figure five). Although as the seventeenth century progressed these fragments shrank in size and stopped circulating, they were still widely available to the readers and owners of earlier books.

Figure five: Detail of the early seventeenth-century binding of Luciani Samosatenis philosophi opera omnia quae extant (Lutetiae Parisiorum: P. Ludouicum Feburier, 1615), Durham Library Cosin W.1.10. Leaves from an early seventeenth-century English Bible have been used as guards, reinforced with fragments of a contemporary document and a twelfth-century liturgical manuscript. Cosin W.1.11 and Cosin K.2.14 have almost identical binding structures. Reproduced by permission of Durham University Library.

[9] The fragments of manuscripts extant in bindings perhaps give the impression that waste was relatively static, stitched tightly within other books. This was, however, far from the case: waste moved in and out of a variety of contexts and spaces. Richard Layton, a principle commissioner of the dissolution, told Cromwell that, on his return to New College Oxford, he had ‘fownde all the gret quadrant court full of the leiffes of Dunce [the 13th century theologian Duns Scotus], the wynde blowyng them into evere corner’.[7] Duns Scotus’ windy and worthless words are, as Layton demonstrates, both rhetorically and literally lightweight: the manuscript’s material qualities marry with those attributed to its contents by the reformers. He goes on to describe how a student, Mr Grenefelde, was found ‘getheryng up part of the saide bowke leiffes (as he saide) therwith to make hym sewelles or blawnsherres [scarecrows, scaring sheets] to kepe the dere within the woode’ in his home county of Buckinghamshire (quoted in Aston 1984: 327).

[10] No longer bound and chained within libraries, manuscripts moved beyond the highly literate and homosocial centres of monasteries and universities. John Bale describes how

A great nombre of the[m] whych purchased those superstycyouse mansyons, reserued of those lybraye bokes, some to serue theyre iakes [toilets], some to scoure theyr candelstyckes, & some to rubbe their bootes. Some they solde to the grossers and sope sellers, & some they sent ouer see to ye bokebynders (B1r).

The monastic fragments, according to Bale, passed frequently through grocers’ shops and kitchens, rubbing and wrapping any number of mundane objects. Despite retaining legible text, they were no longer experienced as textual objects. Instead the old manuscripts provided more haptic forms of knowledge, or, to borrow Matthew C. Hunter’s phrase, a ‘materialized intelligence’, on a larger scale than ever before. Dismembered books prompted a series of ‘generative … imaginings’ through their ‘physical manipulation’ (2013: 549, 564). This manipulation was, for Mr Grenefelde, grounded in their lightness, their capacity to shiver and rustle in a Buckinghamshire breeze, and, for other users described by Bale, in their pliability and relative durability: their capacity to wipe, rub, fold and wrap. Encounters with monastic manuscripts had been transformed. No longer situated within sacred spaces and reserved for elite use, they entered everyday experience. This ubiquity meant that the ‘imaginings’ generated by manuscript waste were especially capacious: the 2,200 binding fragments catalogued by Ker, and those that we encounter in our own archival research, only skim the surface of early modern waste.

Leland and Bale among ‘Monumentes of Learninge’
[11] John Bale and John Leland’s The Laboryouse Journey is a product of this transformation, born from the religious and bibliographic turmoil of the dissolution. Both authors sought out manuscripts in monasteries with the aim of producing ‘bio-bibliographies’, catalogues that outlined the history of Britain through its ancient writers (Carley 2010: xxvii). They travelled through England and its libraries independently between 1533 and 1536, and both undertook a second series of bookish itineraries after the dissolution.[8] There was now a sense of urgency: no longer simply recording, they saw themselves as salvaging British history from the dank oblivion of mould, decay and wasted parchment. Leland’s journeys took place between 1541 and 1544, in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution, and Bale’s between 1548 and 1552, sandwiched between two periods of exile on the continent and in the midst of Edward VI’s iconoclastic reforms.

[12] Leland envisaged an immense body of work, beginning with De uiris illustribus (a chronology of Britain’s literature), and taking in a history of Britain (in fifty volumes), a history of the islands neighbouring Britain, a topography of British place names, a history of British universities, and an ecclesiastical history. But instead, several weeks after Henry VIII’s death in 1547, Leland was incapacitated. According to a friend, quoted by Bale, Leland had fallen into madness because ‘he was vayne gloryouse, and that he had a poetycall wytt’ (B4r). He left behind some printed Latin verse, a mass of unedited manuscript material, and a letter composed after his 1543 itineraries and perhaps presented to the King as a ‘New Year’s Gift’ on January 1st 1544. It described his bibliographic achievements and outlined plans for the expansive projects listed above.

[13] Bale printed his Summarium of British manuscripts, compiled in exile, in 1548. Returning to England later in the year, he began editing Leland’s incomplete manuscript De uiris illustribus whilst pursuing his own ambitious bibliographic work, assembling a list of the authors, titles and opening lines of all extant and noteworthy British books.[9] In 1549, Bale printed and enlarged Leland’s ‘New Year’s Gift’. Inserting a lengthy dedication, commentary and conclusion as well as details of his own antiquarian labours, he titled it The Laboryouse Journey. This text is representative of Bale’s concerted efforts to rewrite Leland’s life and labours in service of his own ‘evangelical’ ends. Whereas Bale was a passionate reformer, Leland remained, like his patron Henry VIII, religiously conservative. Leland was a humanist scholar, ‘personally loyal’ to the King and eager to uncover the literary triumphs of the nation’s past (Ross 1998: 51-64; Simpson 2002: 7-33). He was, therefore, an ideal candidate to seek out Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that might provide theological support and a historical precedent for Henry VIII’s divorce and break with Rome.

[14] Leland’s efforts at textual retrieval, then, were patriotic and politically expedient. In his ‘New Year’s Gift’, he describes his work in triumphalist terms, reminding the King that he had ‘encorage[d]’ him ‘to peruse and dylygentle to searche all the lybraryes of Monasteryes and collegies … to the entent that the monumentes of auncyent wryters … myghte be brought out of deadly darkenesse to lyuelye lyght’ (B8r). In the Journey, Bale resituates Leland’s rhetoric of darkness and light within the rhetoric of the Reformation. These books had been ‘tyed vp in cheanes’ (C3r), concealed, like the scriptures, in ‘vncertayne shadowes’ (C6v). Leland’s labours were, according to Bale, Christ-like, as he harrowed the ‘deadly’ dark spaces, dragging their contents into Protestant light. Leland ‘wold clerely redeme them from dust and byrdfylynges’ (C2v), granting the manuscripts salvation from a uniquely bibliographic kind of hell.

[15] In Bale’s account, the authors of these texts could be made to participate in the Reformed agenda of reclaiming England’s religious past through its old books (Fritze 1983; Schwyzer 2004: 49-75; Summit 2008: 101-35). These ‘[m]oste olde and autentyck Chronycles’ (C2v) provided ample evidence for ‘the vsurped autoryte of the Byshopp of Rome and hys complyces’ (C5r). The monuments and antiquities provide the building blocks for a new national faith, legitimizing the young religion in the face of Catholic attacks on its novelty. England, as Leland’s (on occasion erroneous) discoveries make clear, was in the process of returning to a purer, pre-Popish past, where, for instance, ‘Kynge Athelstane’ had ‘the scriptures … translated into the Saxonysh or Englyshe speche’ (D2v). Leland’s labours, he proclaims in Journey, uncovered both popish lies and English truths: the salvaged manuscripts provided the foundation for a chauvinistic narrative of patriotic and Protestant renewal.

[16] Although the Journey is principally concerned with ideologically useful and physically whole manuscripts, the text is rooted in the material context of the ‘dyspersed remnaunt’ (F4v) of the monastic libraries. The vagaries of waste paper and parchment provide a subversive undercurrent that pulls against Bale and Leland’s homogenizing narratives. ‘Remnaunt[s]’ haunt the text as they tend, disobediently, toward waste. In addition to providing evidence of proto-Protestant accomplishments, the dispersed libraries are a source of melancholy for the antiquarian duo. Ultimately, the loose leaves frustrate attempts at collection and coherence: fragmentary books are only able to produce fragmentary texts. The products of Leland and Bale’s labours are a series of catalogues, or lists: Leland had hoped that ‘the names of the[m]’ who ‘hath bene learned and who hath written from tyme to tyme in this realme’ would be listed ‘wyth their lyues and monumentes of learnynge’ (C7v), seeking to reduce whole manuscripts to titles and abstracts. Bale describes how he ‘put fourth a worke of the same argument’ (D1v), and details the practicalities of putting such a catalogue together:

Among the stacyoners & boke bynders, I found many notable Antiquitees, of whom I wrote out the tytles, tymes, and begynnynges, that we myghte at the leaste shewe the names of them, though we haue not as now, their whole works to shewe (G2v-3r).

[17] The narrative of national monuments snatched from monkish clutches falters as Bale reveals the nitty-gritty of antiquarian labour. Ultimately, he and Leland were attempting to gather together a flood of dissolving and disintegrating objects: if only, he laments, ‘ye had their whole workes in dede, as they were in substaunce & fashyon, whyche now for the more part are peryshed, ye shoulde haue seane most wonders of all’ (H5v). The monuments and antiquities are typically, but unspokenly, incomplete: they offer only ‘tytles, tymes and begynnynges’. In addition to proclaiming the triumphs of England’s past, the broken bits of books announce the violence and fragmentariness of England’s present. Their absent parts are palpable. Despite attempts to gloss over them with orderly lines of text, the wasted objects continued to tell their own stories through the negative presences of gaps and silences.

[18] The ‘broaken vp, and dyspersed lybraryes’ (D1v) are, therefore, the source of a contradiction at the heart of the Journey. This duality is encapsulated by the term ‘disperse’, meaning to ‘scatter, or spread abroade’ (Cawdry 1604: D2r), which describes both Leland and Bale’s triumphant spreading abroad of books and knowledge for the benefit of the nation, as well as a much more literal spreading abroad: the dismembering and scattering of a book’s pages. Leland and Bale, as agents of the dissolution, were complicit in the destruction of what they sought to preserve (Simpson 2002: 14-17; Summit 2008: 109-10). The selective nature of an antiquarian’s labours condemned the majority of manuscripts to a waste fate, with only the prioritized categories of histories and chronicles salvaged. Leland was only able to gather a limited number of books for the Royal Library, which was dispersed after Henry VIII’s death (Carley 1999: 274-82), and Bale’s personal library of 150 books, lost when he fled from Catholic priests in Ireland in 1553, was comprised largely of chronicles (McCusker 1935: 144-65).

[19] A number of collections containing early manuscripts, gathered by Leland and Bale’s contemporaries and near contemporaries, do survive. These libraries, made up of from bits of other, dispersed libraries, demonstrate the manner in which collection and fragmentation go hand in hand. In the early seventeenth century, Sir Robert Cotton dismembered his duplicate or unwanted medieval manuscripts, inserting them as ‘stuffing’ or binding waste into other, partially disassembled books (Carley and Tite 1992: 94-99). His ‘‘cut and paste’ approach’ was often aesthetically driven, with fragments of highly illuminated works used as decorative borders, frontispieces and end-leaves in other manuscripts and printed books (Brown 1998: 291-98). Archbishop Matthew Parker’s books are similarly composite. He glued and stitched leaves from Anglo-Saxon and medieval manuscripts into his own volumes according to his political and theological needs (Knight 2013: 41-50; Graham 2006: 328). These ‘auncient monumentes’ were, like all books in early modern England, malleable objects, hybrid things that left behind a trail of trimmings and offcuts.

[20] Antiquarians like Leland, Bale, Parker and Cotton did not collect old manuscripts to keep them whole. Collections did not lead to coherence or completion, but highlighted discontinuity and acts of disposal. In a process of de-accession and replacement intensified by the dissolution, even the most prized manuscript sheets might ultimately be relinquished to the stationers’ and grocers’ shops: the ‘notable Antiquyte[es]’ should, according to Bale, ‘be stayed in time, and by the art of pryntynge be brought into a no[m]bre of coppyes’ (B2r). This proto-Eisensteinian view of the printing press as a stabilizing force is at odds with the mutable objects described above. Instead, in a continuation of scribal practice, printing an old manuscript replaced an individual object with a number of new ones, releasing its parchment leaves into a mundane world of binderies, merchants’ shops, and kitchens.

[21] This fragmentary drive remains submerged within the Journey. The violent wasting of monastic manuscripts is something that others do. Bale recounts his trip to Norfolk and Suffolk, where ‘all the library monume[n]tes, are turned to the vse of their grossers, candelmakers[,] sope sellers, and other worldly occupyers’ (G3rv). This rough-handling, or ‘vngentilnesse’, stems from the failure of the wider public to conform to Bale’s categorisation of monastic manuscripts. They misread the dispersed pages, neglecting to distinguish between godly monuments of national importance and disposable popish trash. Instead, they treat both as ‘worldly’ things. These materialistic book-wasters, according to Bale, fail to transcend the grossly corporeal: their fixation with the physical features of a manuscript is inseparable from their carnal appetites. They are ‘bellygoddes’, or gluttons (A8r). They prioritize ‘belly ba[n]kettes & table tryu[m]phes’ over ‘the conseruacyon of … Antiquytees’ (B1v-2r). This carnal approach condemns manuscripts to a grotesque fate: they ‘geue them leaue to rotte in vyle corners, or drowne them in … iakes’ (E7r), entering them into the digestive and excremental cycles of the everyday.

[22] Bale hypothesizes an alternative state of affairs, one in which material attributes marry up with textual content. Imagine:

Yf the byshop of Romes lawes, decrees[,] decretals, extrauagantes, cleme[n]tines and other suche dregges of the deuyll … and frutes of the bottomlesse pytte, had leaped out of our libraries, and so become couerynges for bokes … we might wele haue ben therwith contented (G3r).

Ideally, confessional labels would determine the material fate of manuscripts, with popish pages enacting a suicidal agency, voluntarily leaping from library shelves and cases to become book-wrappers and binding waste. This would neatly align the manuscripts’ corrupt nature with an appropriately base function. Peeking from the margins of reformed texts, binding waste might demonstrate Protestant supersession of the Catholic past as Bale so desired. In one particularly pertinent example, fragments of a monastic service-book sit as guards within John Bale’s anti-monastic treatise, The Acts of English Votaries (London: John Tysdale, 1560) (See figure six). But this supersession depended on the sympathies of the viewer, and waste might just as easily interrupt the text it bound, triggering nostalgia for a lost way of life. Regardless, all manuscripts, whether ‘auncient Chronicles’, ‘noble hystoryes’, ‘learned co[m]mentaryes and homelyes vpo[n] ye scriptures’ were put ‘to so homely an office of subieccyon & vtter conte[m]pte’ (G3r).

Figure six: John Bale’s Acts of English Votaries (London: John Tysdale, 1560), The Huntington Library, San Marino, California 12963: in a sixteenth-century limp parchment binding with fragments of an old service-book used as guards. Reproduced by permission of the Huntington Library.

[23]  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Bale and Leland work to distort the organic physicality of the dispersed libraries. In their descriptions they seek to enshrine books as godly objects, linguistically transforming them into abstracted ‘monumentes’. Although ‘monument’ can refer to a written document or record (OED, def. 3.a), the term is laden with a particular set of temporal and material attributes. It is rooted in the Latin ‘monere’, to remind: it both refers backward to a past event or person, and refers forward to their expected endurance in repeated acts of recollection. This is inextricable from a monument’s material qualities: it is synonymous with ‘Sepulchre, Statue, Pillar, or the like’, granting perpetuity to a transient event or decaying body through its relative solidity and permanence (Phillips 1658: CC4r). Leland and Bale’s ‘monuments of learnyng’ and ‘Antiquite’ are, therefore, petrified objects: rather than mouldering manuscripts that disperse and disintegrate across the Reformation landscape, they are fixed and lasting tokens of England’s recently recovered past.

[24]  The manuscripts, however, refuse to be monumentalized. Their sheets are not stony but soft and pliable. Loosened from wooden boards, stiff covers, metal clasps and chains, old books became mobile. Having begun this article by celebrating Leland and Bale as ‘readers of waste’, it is perhaps more appropriate to describe Leland and Bale as misreaders of waste. They misrepresent the material reality, redescribing objects to fit the frame of their triumphant narrative. But crucially, the authorial pair attend (albeit begrudgingly) to the vagaries of manuscript fragments. The counternarrative of disintegration and violent dispersal is a consequence of Leland and Bale’s thoughtful, physical encounters with waste: the text’s terminology of monumentality is internally unravelled because the fragments, though apparently peripheral, are the contextual frame for the Journey.

[25]  Bale does offer a more appropriate epithet, terming the manuscripts ‘lyuely memoryalles of the nacyon’ (A7v). ‘Lyuely’ nicely captures the organic nature and mobility of the fragments, and conveys the manner in which lively things move along a temporal trajectory of atrophy and decay. Monastic waste flaunts the fact that it is, in the words of Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass, ‘a provisional state in the circulation of matter’ (1993: 280). ‘Memoryalle’ is also fitting. Whereas a monument is a category of object, memorial is relatively empty of concrete associations. Memorials were widely, and rather enigmatically, defined as ‘remembrancer[s], or that which puts one in mind of any thing’ (Phillips 1658: BB4r). The dispersed manuscripts sit neatly within this category: they are malleable memorials, present remembrancers that act as palimpsests of past events and encounters.

[26]  These manuscript ‘memoryalles’ circulated alongside other remembrancers in early modern England, keeping company with a category of objects commonly acquired after the death of a loved one and the dispersal of their goods. These memento mori took the form of mourning rings, typically bearing death’s heads and engraved conceits, and perhaps containing fragments of the deceased, such as a lock of hair (Llewellyn 1997: 95-96). The relationship between these two types of tokens or relics shed light on the apocalyptic undercurrent of the Journey. Bale writes that whereas men of old laboured:

…to holde thynges in remembraunce, whych otherwyse had most wretchedly peryshed. Our practyses now are … to destroye their frutefull fou[n]dacyons. … [W]e in these dayes are as prompte to plucke down (I mean the monumentes of lernynge) as though the worlde were now in hys lattre dottynge age, nygh drawynge to an end (E6v-7r).

In a text that attacks monastic corruption and celebrates the nation’s return to godliness, Bale momentarily falters, lamenting the destructive tendencies of the preceding decades. The ‘fou[n]dacyons’ of early modern England and its ‘remembraunce’ of the past are unstable and under threat after the dispersal of the monastic libraries. They have been corroded because people find it hard to ‘hold’ fast onto godly ‘thynges’, and instead abject and expel them as waste. In this construction of history, the ‘practyses’ of ‘pluck[ing]’ and pulling apart books takes on an eschatological significance. The manuscripts are lively, millennial things: their passage in and out of bindings, grocer’s shops and privies highlights their movement toward degeneration and decay.

[27]  As Leslie P. Fairfield has demonstrated, Bale ascribed loosely to a Lutheran religious chronology, espousing a ‘general low-key pessimism’, a ‘sense of senescence and decay, of living at the “latter end of the world”’ (1976: 75-85). Bale’s catalogues were concerned with revealing the progression of the ‘seven ages of the world’ through a chronology of British authors, from apostolic purity to the dawning of an enlightened age with the writings of Wycliffe. The present day was situated well into the sixth and penultimate age, and the seventh and last age was fast approaching (King 1982: 66-67; Fairfield 1976: 99-120). The waste ‘remnaunt[s]’ of monastic manuscripts shaped this morbid historiography. It seemed reasonable to think that the post-Reformation world was teetering on the brink of destruction: it was full of corruptible things that were, like waste sheets, ‘nygh drawynge to an ende’.

[28]  Waste sheets prop up this religious timeline because, found ‘amonge wormes and dust’ (E7r) in monastic libraries, rotting in private hands or privies, they highlighted the atrophy of all organic things. They rubbed against the leather of ‘boots’ and the soap, spices and foodstuffs of the ‘grosser’s shop’. When turned to ‘serue our iakes’, or privies, skin met skin, or pulped and pressed vegetable matter, subsequently wasted, met expelled excrement (B1r). In Bale’s formulation, wasted manuscripts became excremental in nature. He describes how ‘we abhorre & throwe fourth’ our valuable books ‘as most vyle, noysome matter’, regarding them as little ‘ye parynges of our nayles’ (E7v). A noisome thing is something that is ‘hurtful’, ‘vnholsome, corrupt … pestilent’, capable of infiltrating and ‘infect[ing]’ the body (Cawdry 1604: F8r). Once the manuscripts had been abjected and become waste, they threatened to permeate the skin, blurring unsettlingly with the surfaces that they encountered and compromising the body’s boundaries.

[29]  Bale’s comparison of the trimmings of cut-up and discarded manuscripts with the offcuts of the human body is quite striking. Parchment and fingernails share a distinctive, milky off-white colour, and both become easily ingrained with dirt. Both are stiff but flexible and might contain traces of other corporeal textures, such as hair, follicles and veins. The narrow strips of manuscript waste scattered across the work surfaces in binders’ shops and visible as guards in books reminded Bale of the body’s ‘matter’, triggering sentiments analogous to those brought about by more traditional ‘memoryalls’ and tokens. Nails, like hair and bone, endured after death. When set in jewellery, they reminded their owner not only of their loved one in death but also the transience of their own lives. Manuscript waste generated similar meanings: it was a relic of what had been lost (a whole manuscript, a monastery and way of life), and a reminder of what will come to an end (the body and the world). Transitioning from usefulness to waste and from wholeness to fragment, the movements of manuscript fragments resembled the temporal trajectory of the body to an uncanny degree.

John Aubrey: Reading Wrack and Ruin
[30]  A number of Leland and Bale’s near-contemporaries were engaged in similar activities of gathering manuscripts dispersed from the monastic libraries, and an account of early modern encounters with binding waste might limit itself quite justifiably to this lineage of sixteenth-century antiquarians. This study, however, favours a binocular view of the period in which manuscript waste circulated. One of the striking features of monastic waste is its capacity to endure, and so a proper assessment of these waste objects should consider and seek to account for their manifold afterlives. John Aubrey lived over a century after the dissolution in a vastly different political and theological context, one in which the nature of antiquarian practice itself had shifted. As Daniel Woolf has argued, in the late seventeenth century remnants of the past were likely to be perceived as curiosities, collected as much for their aesthetic as their philological value (2003: 141-44). But despite Aubrey’s distance from the dispersal of the monastic libraries, his writings are more sensitive to waste than any of his contemporaries or predecessors. He looked across two centuries of bibliographic turmoil through the lens of local recollection and the objects themselves. Growing up in the decades when the use of monastic waste began to dwindle, Aubrey’s approach to the past was discernibly shaped by these fragments. He began compiling his Natural History of Wiltshire in 1656, and the 1690-91 version, copied at the request of the Royal Society, contains an unusual ‘Digression’.[10] In it, Aubrey structures a miniature autobiography, genealogy and local chronology through traceable encounters with wasted manuscripts.

[31]  Here he describes past environments of waste, how ‘[i]n my grandfathers dayes, the Manuscripts flew about like Butterflies’.[11] These were the days of his maternal grandfather, Isaac Lyte (1576-1660), demonstrating that as late as the last quarter of the sixteenth century, decades after the dissolution, monastic waste was considered to be ubiquitous. At this time, ‘All Musick bookes, Account bookes’ and ‘Copie bookes &c.’ were, according to Aubrey’s grandfather, ‘covered with old Manuscripts. … And the Glovers at Malmesbury made great Havock of them; and Gloves were wrapt up no doubt in many good pieces of Antiquity’.

[32]  Although by the second quarter of the seventeenth century the world no longer brimmed with lively fragments, monastic waste was a memorable participant in Aubrey’s childhood. He recounts that in 1633, aged seven and a pupil of ‘the Latin-Schoole at Yatton-Keynel’, it was the ‘fashion then … to save the Forules of their Bookes with a false cover of Parchment sc{ilicet} old Manuscript’. He credits his childhood self with an appreciation of and detailed attention to these objects, writing that although ‘he was too young to understand’ the textual content of the sheets, he ‘was pleased with the Elegancy of the Writing and the coloured initiall Letters’. Aubrey recalls a sensual interaction with the manuscripts, which would prove to be a prominent antecedent for the antiquarian engagements of his adult life.[12]

[33]  The school that Aubrey next attended, in the nearby parish of ‘Leigh-Delamer’, undertook ‘the like use of covering Bookes’, but ‘Blandford-Schoole’ in Dorset, which he attended from the age of 12, did not. Although the schoolboys covered their books with ‘old Parchments’ such as ‘Leases &c.’, Aubrey ‘never saw any thing of a Manuscript there’. This was because ‘Here about were no Abbeys or Convents for Men’. The ‘Digression’, therefore, suggests both the longevity and the geographical distribution of monastic waste. In parishes containing and bordering dissolved monasteries, ecclesiastical manuscripts were available for wasting long into the seventeenth century. Elsewhere, waste practices were founded on a more diffuse range of disposable texts (see, for instance, figure seven).

Figure seven: The essaies of Sr Francis Bacon Knight (London: for [John Beale], [1617]), Huntington Library, San Marino, California 6010136: bound in a contemporary legal document. Reproduced by permission of the Huntington Library

[34]  Aubrey’s local environment brimmed with ecclesiastical estates, ‘for within half a dozen miles of this place’ were Malmesbury, Stanley, Monkton Farleigh, Bath, and Cirencester Abbeys, along with Bradenstoke Priory. Of these, only Malmesbury and Bath had been adapted for parish use. The others had been ‘digged up’, plundered for building materials and left to ruin. Stone ruins and malleable manuscript sheets were experientially interconnected, both manifesting, in the words of Margaret Aston, ‘the gashes’ and ‘scars of earlier destruction’, shaping, in her formulation, a nostalgic and historically driven ‘sense of the past’ (1973: 243). Aubrey imaginatively reconstructs these scars, repopulating the library shelves and reading the absent wholes of potentially precious library books into the waste fragments encountered in his schooldays: ‘it may be presumed the Library’ of Malmesbury Abbey ‘was as well furnished with choice Copies, as most Libraries of England’, he writes, teasing himself with what-might-have-beens, conjecturing that ‘perhaps in this Library we might have found a correct Plinys Naturall History’.

[35]  The ‘Digression’ moves on to delineate local personalities through their encounters with loose parchment pages. He describes the rector of Malmesbury, one William Stump, great grandson of a wealthy clothier who had purchased the site of the Abbey and its neighbouring lands after the dissolution. ‘[S]everall Manuscripts of the abbey’ had passed down the generations of Stumps, surviving for more than a century, stowed away for special use. ‘[W]hen He brewed a barrel of speciall Ale’, Aubrey recalls, ‘his use was to stop the bung-hole (under the Clay) with a sheet of Manuscript: He sayd nothing did it so well which me thought did grieve me then to see’. Whereas the young Aubrey relished the luxurious (if faded) shapes and surfaces of waste sheets, Stump appreciated their capacity to mould and fold within a bung-hole whilst remaining relatively water-tight. Although this ‘grieve[s]’ the grown up Aubrey, both engagements, ostensibly dissimilar, are rooted in the hapticity of waste.

[36]  Stump’s sons, we learn, take after their father. In 1647, when Aubrey was 21 years old and Civil War had ravaged the landscape for several years, he returned to the rector’s house ‘out of curiosity to see his Manuscripts, whereof I had seen some in my Childhood’. They were, however, ‘lost, and disperst: His sonns were Gunners, & Soldiers, and scoured their Gunnes with them’.

[37]  This anecdote is indicative of Aubrey’s fluctuation between different scales of storytelling. He intermittently expands from the autobiographical and local to the wider cultural histories contained within waste sheets. Aubrey’s description of a secondary ‘los[s] and dispers[al]’ of manuscripts in the 1640s blurs the religious and political turmoil of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. ‘Before the late warres’, Aubrey writes, ‘a World of rare Manuscripts perished here about’. At first glance, he seems to be referring to the relatively recent events of the Civil War, when ecclesiastical buildings and objects underwent a new wave of iconoclastic violence (Aston 1988: 84-95). It is, after all, a critical commonplace to credit the Civil War with shaping Aubrey’s antiquarian mindset, lending him an ‘acute sense of … impermanence’ (Parry 1995: 276). But for Aubrey, the chronology of destruction was not so clear-cut. Although Civil War iconoclasm was primarily directed at the early seventeenth-century ‘innovations’, in practice it was largely indiscriminate, with late medieval survivals destroyed alongside Laudian introductions. It is unlikely, however, that large numbers of monastic manuscripts survived outside of private hands in the 1640s.[13] Instead, it is probable that ‘Before the late warres’ refers to a much longer, more vaguely defined stretch of time, reaching backward across a century from the period of Civil War to the dissolution of the monasteries. Throughout these decades, the old parchment books comprised an inhabitable ‘World’, undergoing repeated acts of dispersal and dismemberment, until, following the violence of the Civil War, they eventually fell out of circulation.

[38]  The ‘Digression’ is a multitemporal text. Moving between descriptions of the days of grandfathers, great-grandfathers and his own experiences, Aubrey dips in and out of traditionally discrete events and periods of time. This multitemporality is grounded in the waste objects themselves. They are carried through the decades, accumulating traces and wearing away as they pass through hands and spaces. The sheet’s surface layers condense common historiography as they offer up a palimpsest of several centuries, from monastic composition, binding and storage, to dissolution and dispersal, to an indefinite period of fragmentation and wasting. As Harris argues, we cannot ‘separate time into a linear series of units’. Instead, ‘objects collate many different moments’ (2009: 2-4). Rubbing, wrapping and barrel-bunging leave indelible marks as the frictive give-and-take of surface layer on surface layer records where an object has been and what it has touched.

[39]  If bound in other books, waste might tell further stories of collection and archiving. Aubrey reads the same stories told in rare books rooms of the twenty-first century, describing how ‘One may also perceive by the binding of old Bookes, how the old Manuscripts went to wrack in those dayes’. Shifting to the present tense, Aubrey puns on the violence endured by the manuscripts, eliding the frame on which parchment was stretched with its namesake, the instrument of torture. This observation echoes a motto, borrowed from Bacon who borrowed it from the fifteenth-century Italian antiquary Flavio Biondo, that Aubrey employs frequently throughout his writing: ‘Tanquam tabula naufragii’, ‘like planks from a shipwreck’ (Williams 2016: 103). Antiquities and anecdotes are both salvage, the residue of a passed present and a lost whole, but, as Bacon makes clear, these fragments are legible: ‘ANTIQVITIES, or Remnants of History, are, as was said, tanquam Tabula Naufragii; when industrious persons by an exact and scrupulous diligence and obseruation out of Monume[n]ts, Names, Wordes, Prouerbes, Traditions, Priuate Recordes, and Euidences, Fragments of stories, Passages of Bookes … doe saue and recouer somewhat from the deluge of time’ (1605: CC3r). The wreckage might seem trivial but it reveals, to an attentive reader like Aubrey, its own biography, as well as the wider, cultural trajectories that impact on the fate of an object.

[40]  Whereas Bale and Leland fought hard to fit monastic waste within the Protestant programme of the Journey, Aubrey, at first glance, allows waste to speak for itself. His readings, in contrast to his Reformation counterparts, seem relatively objective. Typically reticent on matters of religion, Aubrey’s grief at the destruction of manuscripts is framed as wistful aestheticism, rather than closet Catholic nostalgia, with his interpretive voice largely concealed behind a strategy of Baconian empiricism (Aubrey 2015: xxxiv). The distinct contexts of mid-sixteenth-century religious polemic and late seventeenth-century antiquarianism produce disparate types of text, but, when placed side by side, they do more than demonstrate the surprising longevity of monastic fragments. They are both waste narratives, constructed from parchment palimpsests, and both signal the complex relationship between waste as a concrete thing and waste as a rhetorical construction. Crucially, waste both tells its own stories and speaks its own language. Attentive handlers might read the historical trajectory of waste through its traces, situating its folds, tears and marks within their own interpretive framework. These handlers might go on to author an interrelated but incontrovertibly distinct narrative about the object, as Leland, Bale and Aubrey did. Translated into textual format, waste becomes a trope or emblem, moulded to sit within a variety of authorial narratives and rhetorical programmes. Waste metaphors and metonyms are, however, persistently haunted by their concrete counterparts. Regardless of literary trappings, these tropes will always, at some level, speak the language of a material thing that moves along a trajectory of fragmentation and decay.

[41]  Aubrey’s life-long encounters with waste paper and parchment are translated into just such a trope in his Brief Lives: the pages that contain Aubrey’s own life story are ‘to be interponed [interposed] as a sheet of waste paper only in the binding of a book’ (Aubrey 2015: I.429). Employing a common modesty topos, Aubrey subordinates his own biography to the multitude of lives he has recorded, offering it as a protective wrapping, a prop or frame for the book’s more valuable contents. But, as we have discovered, far from playing an insignificant part, waste was an active participant in Aubrey’s life. Kate Bennett has suggested that this might in fact be a literal instruction, as Aubrey stored valuable manuscript sheets and papers within his books. At the very least, she argues, it is a ‘melancholy’ or ‘ironic reference’ to the waste practices of his schooldays (Aubrey 2015: I.393-94).

[42]  Regardless of its relative playfulness, the meta-material direction demonstrates the manner in which Aubrey shaped his self-identity through the vagaries of waste fragments. Although apparently humble and peripheral, sitting on the edge of extinction, waste is a time-traveller telling stories of the past, and the fragility of the survival of such stories. Aubrey evidently saw himself as sharing at least some of these traits. Typically self-effacing, Aubrey described himself as a ‘wheatstone’, only useful for sharpening the wit of others, and his works as ‘only Umbrages’ and ‘ruines’ (Aubrey 2015: I.433-34). But it was Aubrey and his scattered papers that, like ruins and waste sheets, shored up past fragments against the ‘deluge of time’.

[43]  That which sits on the periphery, like fly-leaves, pastedowns, wrappers and guards, might be what becomes, every now and again, most important. The shipwrecked remnants are ‘as planes and lighter things’. They ‘swimme, and are preserved, where the more weighty since are lost. … In like manner is it with matters of Antiquitie’ (Aubrey 2015: II.761). The lightweight sheets, easily dispersed but fortuitously preserved, speak a language of wrack and ruin, grounded in the traces of past encounters and the vagaries of survival. Far from being ventriloquized or enlivened by authors such as Leland, Bale and Aubrey, waste told of multilayered histories. These authors and their texts are indicative of a wider early modern sensitivity to the waste fragments, which, though no longer flying through the air like butterflies, scattered across the post-dissolution landscape for well over a century.

University of York


[1] This essay’s understanding of the experience of objects borrows from, and takes issue with, the work of Daniel Miller: things ‘direct our footsteps, and are the landscapes of our imagination’ but are not, as Miller argues, ‘invisible and unremarked upon’ or ‘familiar and taken for granted’ (2009: 50-54).[back to text]

[2] Knowles (1959; repr.1976) and Youings (1971) are the foundational studies of the dissolution, although they do not discuss the dispersal of the monastic libraries in any detail. See Carley (2002 and 2006), Fritze (1983), Ramsay (2004) and Wright (1951).[back to text]

[3] For the chronological trends of sixteenth and seventeenth-century manuscript destruction see Ker (1954; repr. 2004: ix-x). [back to text]

[4] Bale and Leland (1549: B1v). All further page numbers given parenthetically in main text.[back to text]

[5] This note can be found within the volume itself. The inscription reads: ‘et a ceste heure voyre en L’an de notre seigneur 1557 a moy Jehan Dee Angloys: lequel ie achetay par le poys‘. This might indicate that much of Duke Humfrey’s collection, sold in bulk, found its way into binders’ and stationers’ shops. Fragments of manuscripts, traceable to the old library, have been found in bindings. See de la Mare and Gillam (1988: 124). [back to text]

[6] The catalogue of the house of Syon, compiled between c. 1500 and c. 1524, is the only extant and intact monastic library catalogue from these decades (Carley 2006: 265). It reveals the acts of incorporation and disposal that a major monastic library undertook between the introduction of print and the advent of the dissolution. By 1504, the collection was over 1300 volumes strong, but only 30 books of Syon providence have since been identified. As with most monastic collections, the exact fate of the collection is unclear. De Hamel’s hypothesis is an evocative one. He suggests that because the extant books are predominantly ‘from the middle of the alphabetical range of class-marks’, they most likely sat moulding in the abandoned library for a number of years after the monastery’s dissolution in 1539, with the outer edges of the book-cases most vulnerable to the elements, thieves and rodents. See Gillespie (2001) and de Hamel (1991).[back to text]

[7] On the concerted wasting of the works of Duns Scotus, see Summit (2008: 88-90).[back to text]

[8] There is some debate over the dating of Leland’s itineraries and ‘New Year’s Gift’. This chronology is taken from Carley’s recent and exhaustive edition of De uiris illustribus (2010). See also Chandler (1993) and, regarding Bale, Fairfield (1976) and King (1982).[back to text]

[9] These notebooks are held in the Bodleian Library (MS Selden Supra 64) and were the foundation for Bale’s Catalogus (1557-59).[back to text]

[10] As quoted in Yale (2009: 1-2). All further references to Aubrey’s ‘Digression are from these pages.[back to text]

[11] See Yale for an explanation of Aubrey’s terminology regarding manuscripts (‘those written on parchment or vellum before the advent of printing’) and papers (contemporary ‘loose sheets, notes from experiments and observations’ etc.) (2009: 4).[back to text]

[12] Kate Bennett gives an interesting example of one such later engagement. Aubrey records removing a parchment ‘Cover’ (a ninth or tenth-century text of Ecclesiasticus) from a contemporary astrological work, and inserting it into his manuscript Monumenta Britannica. He sought to analyse the manuscript as part of his larger paleographical project (2013:94).[back to text]

[13] Spraggon records several instances of the destruction of ‘old books’ during the Civil War, for instance, in Peterborough, Lichfield and Winchester in 1642 and 1646 when ‘divers larg[e] p[ar]chm[e]nts’ were used to make ‘Kytes w[i]thall to flie in the Ayre’. These books, however, seem to have been predominantly administrative documents, such as charters and parish registers (2003: 209, 235).[back to text]


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____. 1984. Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval England (London: Hambledon Press)

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