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Ruth Ahnert, The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). ISBN: 9781107040304, 241 pp. £55.00.

Reviewed by Patrick J. Murray


[1] ‘Some of history’s most influential writers, thinkers, and political figures’ writes Ruth Ahnert in her introduction to this stimulating book, ‘wrote from prison, including St. Paul, Boethius, Marco Polo, Walter Raleigh, John Bunyan, the Marquis de Sade, Oscar Wilde, Lady Constance Lytton, Adolf Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ezra Pound, Antonio Gramsci, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, and Gerry Adams, to name a few’ (p. 1). As such a range of authorial sources implies, while prison writing as a generic convention may be broadly classified, its themes, purposes and subjects elude codification. This variegation is evident even when one delimits the canon to a specific historical epoch and even geographical location – England in the sixteenth century saw Catholic and Protestant, male and female, the powerful and the marginal, write from prison during incarceration, evincing an array of political and religious imperatives. As such, Ahnert has a substantial and textured body of primary material with which to formulate her thesis.

[2] And this thesis is by turns elucidatory and engaging. Underpinning Ahnert’s study is a nuanced understanding of wider theoretical narratives. Reference to classic sociological studies by Jurgen Habermas (p. 6), Michel de Certeau and Edmund Husserl (p. 29) and their theories of spatial interaction, public spheres and counter-publics provide a solid foundation for this narration of ‘the emergence of the prison as an important literary sphere’ (p. 7).The interrogation commences with a summary of the realities of the sixteenth century English prison. Centring upon the notion of the prison in the period as an ‘antipanopticon’, Ahnert adumbrates a sphere where, unlike the later standardised model of the house of correction conceived by, among others, Jeremy Bentham and interrogated by Michel Foucault, fragmentation, divergence and variance prevailed. Certainly, the author acknowledges, a coherent notional model, through the enactment of significant reform, was emerging. However, the two main changes in penal practice in the sixteenth century – ‘the use of prison as both punishment and a corrective’ – were mitigated by their limited application. ‘These two Tudor developments,’ Ahnert asserts

‘[…] show that key individuals and bodies were beginning to develop new penal theories and ideologies that foreshadow the kinds of developments Foucault sees occurring a century and a half later. But, because these sixteenth-century changes were so piecemeal and divergent in nature, they merely contributed to the fragmentation of a system that was already riven by conflicting penal theories’ (p. 12).

[3] The differences in the way people were imprisoned led to a divergent range of experiences. Some, such as the Carthusian martyrs William Exmew, Sebastian Newdigate and Humphrey Middlemore, who were chained by their necks and legs and kept in their own effluvia to force confession, or Anne Askew who was subjected to the rack in the Tower of London, accord with popular perceptions of late mediaeval and early modern forms of punishment. However, more affluent prisoners, such as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, even when charged with similar crimes, were held under house arrest in the relative comfort of mayoral homes and university colleges. The diversity within the modes of punishment stemmed primarily, Ahnert points out, from the limited role of the state in the functioning of the prison system. Nonetheless this restriction carried its own benefits for the ruling classes: ‘For the government’ writes Ahnert ‘there were clear advantages to be afforded by this decentralised, privatised prison system. Importantly, it allowed the government to maintain a vast number of prisons with minimal cost’ (p. 19). On the flipside however, the fractile nature of the system also precipitated a loss of control in regards to adequate administration: ‘But the drawback was that it had very little control over how they were run. Some of the benefits that money and social stature could buy in these fee-paying institutions posed a serious risk to the prison’s security.’ (p. 19). Consequently, the concerns of government – political, social and economic – influenced the ways in which crimes were punished even within a limited carceral system.

[4] More significantly, however, for studies of prison writing, the broader disorganisation of the system was mirrored in the literature produced from within. ‘Writings produced by prisoners in the early modern period,’ suggests Ahnert, ‘reflected the inefficiency, disorder, and corruption of the system in which they were detained’ (p. 22). Yet a corollary of this disorder was the lack of a standardised literature, with its own strictured conventions, and as such proffering intriguing and sometimes unusual avenues for investigation for literary scholars. For instance, where there was a lack of writing material, other forms of literary ephemera emerged. This can be seen for example in the contemporary graffiti in the Tower of London, a significant resource exploited by Ahnert as she explores ‘writings that break down the dichotomy implicit in the term counter-public’ (p. 32). Wall markings, both ornate and rudimentary are analysed for what they can tell us about the practice of writing or recording in a space specifically designed for the prevention of the transmission of writing and recording. The impulse towards individuation among sixteenth century prison writers emerges as a focal point, for example in the appending of signatures, initials and other imprimatur to reproduced Bible verses which ‘acts as a defence against anonymity’. ‘Even though the sentence still offers wisdom to each subsequent viewer,’ argues Ahnert persuasively, ‘it has become irrevocably associated with the name or monogram inscribed beside it, thereby ensuring that the given individual is remembered in relation to that particular, pious phrase’ (p. 41).

[5] Subtler forms of graffiti are also examined, as for example marginalia. Taking William Sherman’s justified description of marginal annotations, inscriptions and reader’s glosses as a form of this unofficial literature, Ahnert considers Thomas More’s Tower works, and in particular inscriptions in his prayer books. Evaluation of More’s concentration upon religious meditation leads to some stimulating conclusions. ‘By writing, and not writing about prison’ Ahnert observes, ‘More suggests that his identity as an author transcends his identity as a prisoner; although the prison has given him the chance to write, it is writing that defines his incarceration, not incarceration that defines his writing’ (p. 58). Once more, the sense of prison writing motivated not only to write, but also to record the presence of an author is iterated.

[6] Such a focus upon authorial agency, and how imprisoned early modern authors expressed identity through their literary endeavours, is a key aspect of Ahnert’s study. Writing, especially that which expressly ignores the prison (as with More’s annotations) in itself becomes a form of protest: ‘[b]y writing More is asserting that he is not daunted. His reading and writing materials may have been subsequently taken away, but it does not matter; it matters only that More wrote’ (p. 59). The presumption of a drive towards both authorship and, as a consequence, a readership is interestingly linked to prison writing transmitted between prison writers. Thus, a chapter is dedicated to the epistolary verse between Margaret Douglas and Thomas Howard, imprisoned over their clandestine marriage. Here, Ahnert draws in the well-worn literary paradigm of amatory isolation – the notion that the writer of the love lyric is a solitary figure’ and ‘love as isolation, love as suffering, love as imprisonment’ (p. 85) – to consider how the solipsistic symbiosis of the Douglas-Howard interaction influenced reception of their work when exposed to a broader audience. Later added to manuscript and subject to scribal dissemination, the erstwhile intimacy of the interaction was exposed to the fluidity of authorship inherent in coterie culture. Nonetheless, even when subsumed into broader collections of lyric poems, the authorial ascription of Douglas and Howard persisted, foregrounding the importance of authorship within the prison writing genre.

[7] The Rise of Prison Literature also demonstrates sensitivity to the wider socio-political resonances of its subject, particularly in its analysis of Renaissance martyrologies. Enormously popular, this genre presented to the reader, in the words of one of the most famous, John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Church (more colloquially Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) ‘the bloudy times, horrible troubles, and great persecutions agaynst the true martyrs of Christ, sought and wrought as well by heathen emperours, as nowe lately practised by Romish prelates, especially in this realme of England and Scotland’ (p. A1r). The anthologising of editors, such as Foxe and John Bale, of previously-discrete prison works is a key aspect of early modern prison literature – Ahnert’s allusion to the ‘powerful stamp of approval’ born by such figures is both apt and eloquent. Anthologies have, as Ahnert rightly notes, an ambiguous character as texts, serving both to legitimize the material included within them in a broader thematic schema; whilst also tempering the sole agency of the author through often-unforeseen editorial input. In the context of prison writing – a delimited genre – the subtle dynamic of authorial text and editorial paratexts or revision is rendered especially crucial. ‘[I]f we choose to interrogate, or at least notice, the ways in which editors frame the prison writings with their own narratives and agendas’ writes Ahnert, ‘then we can avoid becoming the editor’s accomplice and instead assist the imprisoned author in overcoming the constraints of institutional oppression’ (p. 192).

[8] In keeping with this attention to the power of the relationship between reader and writer, Ahnert’s study retains an admirable focus on the literary. The concluding chapter entitled ‘Liberating the text?’ draws on Leah Price’s exploration of book it-narratives to consider ‘the idea that print publication and subsequent circulation of prison literature can unproblematically be described as a form of liberation’ (p. 144). Interrogation of the dissemination and reading networks of sixteenth century prison literature, alongside their concomitant array of ‘copiers and carriers both inside and outside the prison’ (p. 45) forms a key element of Ahnert’s thesis. The subtle differentiation between scribal and print publication – one of the most important and stimulating aspects of the field of early modern literary studies, influencing debates form dramaturgical collaboration to authorial identity to the place of literature in courtly and patronage structures of power – is explored with regard to the perceptions of the author-reader interaction and its significance in the production and consumption of prison literature.

[9] For Ahnert, prison writing represents an act of liberation involving writer, reader and editor. In the various case studies examined in this book, the intricacies and boundaries of this process are mapped out. Scholars of early modern literature will find much of interest here in the author’s sensitive readings of poetry and prose by both canonical and lesser-known writers; and those interested in the development of the carceral system in the early modern period in England will find Ahnert’s observations on its evolution both informative thought-provoking.

University of Glasgow, January 2014