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

Reviewed by Christopher Stone


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May, 2014