Spenser and Religion
Abstract and Keywords
This article explores the religious dimensions of Spenser's poetry, which are indebted to a contention-ridden — that is, richly dramatic — landscape of Elizabethan religious identities. His poetry can picture this terrain in terms of antithesis, and perhaps as a result readers have often sought to identify him with myriad political and doctrinal positions along the spectrum of Reformation Christianity. But it is important to remember that in the 1570s and 1580s, the years during which Spenser came of age both poetically and politically, many of the divisions and parties teased out by the events of the following seventy years were as yet intertwined. His poetry thus owes as much to the centripetal as the centrifugal tendencies of contemporary confessional persuasions. Its religious aspects are conditioned not only by Spenser's hallmark syncretism, or the ‘middle way’ of the Elizabethan religious settlement, but the nature of the Elizabethan church in its inaugural decades.
One of the greatest challenges in thinking about the past is trying to imagine a prior moment without remembering ‘how it all turned out’, with the same degree of suspense and muddle experienced by its original participants. This effort is perhaps especially difficult when imagining Reformation England, a period and place marked by schism and whose partisan consequences include such episodes as the English Revolution, with its lethal conflict between religious sectaries and the established religious and political orders. The religious dimensions of Spenser's poetry are indeed indebted to a contention‐ridden—that is, richly dramatic—landscape of Elizabethan religious identities. His poetry can picture this terrain in terms of antithesis, and perhaps as a result readers have often sought to identify him with myriad political and doctrinal positions along the spectrum of Reformation Christianity.1 But it is important to remember that in the 1570s and 1580s, the years during which Spenser came of age both poetically and politically, many of the divisions and parties teased out by the events of the following seventy years were as yet intertwined. His poetry thus owes as much to the centripetal as the centrifugal tendencies of contemporary confessional persuasions. Its religious aspects are conditioned not only by Spenser's hallmark syncretism, or the ‘middle way’ of the Elizabethan religious settlement (capacious or compromised, depending on the interpreter), but the nature of the Elizabethan church in its inaugural decades.
Spenser and his national church were nearly of an age. Born in the early 1550s, Spenser was probably six years old by the time Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, and thus had already lived through two different regimes and their unique religious foundations. In 1561 he matriculated as one of the first students of the newly (p. 31) established Merchant Taylors' School, a flagship of Elizabethan state educational reform, and his formal religious awareness was shaped by another new institution, that of Elizabeth I's state church. The state‐prescribed Primer from which he probably learned to read packaged between its covers the ABC, a Latin grammar, the Catechism, and a selection of prayers and psalms cued to the official liturgy.
When Elizabeth I became England's monarch in November of 1558 her Act of Supremacy resurrected her father Henry VIII's statutes establishing dominion of the English Crown over ecclesiastical matters, and, for extra legal measure, repealed her half‐sister Mary I's act repealing those statutes (Bray 1994: 318). Mary's regime had reassigned ecclesiastical jurisdiction to the papacy when she succeeded her (and Elizabeth's) younger half‐brother, Edward VI, in 1553, and in their turn Elizabethan church officials were required to renounce allegiance to foreign authority, i.e. to the ‘Bishop of Rome’. A swift seven months later in June 1559 the Act of Uniformity (1 Elizabeth I, c. 2) established more particular ground rules for Elizabeth's ministers and their flocks (Bray 1994: 329). The prime focus of this legislation was the decreed use of the Book of Common Prayer throughout the kingdom as a means to a nationwide standard of devotional practice: ‘where heretofore there hath been great diversity in saying and singing in churches within this realm, some following Salisbury use, some Hereford use, some the use of Bangor, some of York, and some of Lincoln, now from henceforth all the whole realm shall have but one use’ (Booty 1976: 16). In theory, henceforth all inhabitants of Elizabeth's dominion could (and should) be praying in unison on any given Sunday, and in English. In an age of few standardized or uniform national institutions, this ideal of a homogeneous national time, space, and tongue was a novel one.
This book's chief function was to direct the dissemination of the book. By following its calendar of monthly readings and thirty‐year almanac of holy days, a congregation would hear the Old Testament once a year, the New Testament three times, and the Psalter once a month. Material appropriate to holy days was specified, as was the order of ritual for Holy Communion, and for those ceremonies marking life's major passages: Baptism, Confirmation, Matrimony, Thanksgiving after Childbirth, Visitation of the Sick, and Burial. Parishes were required to purchase both the Book of Common Prayer and an English Bible, but the preface to the former promised that ‘by this order the curates shall need none other books for their public service…by the means whereof the people shall not be at so great charge for books as in time past they have been’ (Booty 1976: 16). Penalties for the failure to adopt the Book of Common Prayer ranged from the loss of a year's profit of a benefice for a first offence to life imprisonment for a third; for their part, parishioners were compelled under pain of twelve pence to attend church on Sundays and holy days, and forbidden to ‘derogate, deprave, or despise’ said book in ‘interludes, plays, songs, rhymes, or by other open words’ (Bray 1994: 331).
The promise of merely two required texts was not long adhered to: other mandated purchases for every church soon included Erasmus's Paraphrases (1517–24) (a commentary on the New Testament) and, for preachers, the Book of Homilies (1559) (ready‐made and prescribed sermons on fundamental spiritual and practical (p. 32) topics). In time these four books would be joined by John Foxe's Actes and Monuments of the English Church and People (1563), a history of the Reformation in England from the ‘primitive’ Apostolic church through its centuries‐long trials in the papal wilderness until the recent martyrdoms under Mary Tudor and its deliverance by Elizabeth I (who in the 1584 edition was herself included among her sister's persecutions). Parishes were directed to secure these books in the sanctuary where all could consult them, albeit ‘out of the time of services’—no fact‐checking during a sermon (Bray 1994: 337). In addition to these books, with their idealized visions of the time, text, space, and story of the national church, the church in which Spenser grew up was also governed by more practical guidelines for worship. Accompanying the Act of Uniformity was a collection of 52 Injunctions, a set of operating instructions detailing the practical nature of church comportment for both minister and flock.2 Preachers were to read these aloud quarterly, and in them we can trace the lineaments of a Protestant practice.
Some of these Injunctions marked the new church off from its Roman predecessor quite clearly. Leading off and reiterated throughout was the prohibition against idolatry, and a reminder of the true source of grace—preachers
shall not set forth or extol any images, relics or miracles,…nor allure the people by any enticements, to the pilgrimage of any saint or image, but reproving the same…shall teach that all goodness, health and grace ought to be both asked and looked for only of God, as of the very author and giver of the same, and of none other. (Bray 1994: 336)
The importance of preaching was stressed: ministers were to read a Homily aloud weekly, and deliver at least one other sermon quarterly, ‘wherein they shall purely and sincerely declare the Word of God, and in the same, exhort their hearers to the works of faith, mercy and charity’ (Bray 1994: 336). If a preacher was not up to the task of composing a sermon himself, he could resort again to the Book of Homilies. A ‘comely and honest pulpit’ was to be provided in a ‘convenient place’; readers were charged to speak ‘leisurely, plainly and distinctly’ (Bray 1994: 341). For their part parishioners were to be seated in ‘quiet attendance’ (Bray 1994: 338) during the entire service; bell‐ringing during the service was ‘utterly forborne’, as were processional services (Bray 1994: 340). Attending services in neighboring parishes was discouraged, except in the case of an extraordinary sermon on offer; preachers too were forbidden to wander beyond the districts for which they were licensed to preach. Attendance would be taken.
Much as official narratives of Protestantism sought to configure revolution as retrieval, so too the Injunctions minimized the break with the past when possible. If peregrinating services were discontinued, the practice of rogation was permitted annually ‘at the time accustomed’ (Bray 1994: 340).3 If the church furniture (and interior domestic decoration) was drastically altered by the removal of visual aids to worship— ‘shrines, tables, and candlesticks, trundles or rolls of ware, pictures, paintings and all other monuments of feigned miracles’—music, and the beneficed musicians, were to remain, ‘for the comforting as such as delight in music’ (Bray 1994: 345). As ever, parishioners knelt during times of supplication as ‘heretofore hath (p. 33) been accustomed’ (Bray 1994: 346). Almsgiving and tithing were to continue, and good works were encouraged, albeit not now as a means but a testament to their author's receipt of grace. For above all, ‘foreasmuch as variance and contention is a thing which most displeaseth God,’ state powers sought to prevent social unrest: ‘discord among the people…slanderous words and railings whereby charity, the knot of all Christian society, is loosed’ (Bray 1994: 345). The fiftieth Injunction acknowledges that such disturbances can stem from ‘all alterations but specially in rites and ceremonies’—in other words, from the kind of changes the Injunctions themselves enact (Bray 1994: 345). But perhaps of greater concern was the grist such changes might give to the perennial tensions within and between communities: disputes over precedence (triggered by processional services); boundary contests between neighbors or villages; garden‐variety disrespect for authority generally. For instance, those who would shirk harvest work now had a new excuse: to ‘superstitiously’ claim the Sabbath's prerogative. So Injunction 20 decreed that ‘all parsons vicars and curates shall teach and declare unto their parishioners that they may with a safe and quiet conscience…save that thing which God hath sent’ (Bray 1994: 340), and get the harvest in. Slander, a perennial threat to communal harmony, now had fresh terms of abuse: ‘these convicious words: Papist or papistical heretic, schismatic or sacramentary, or any suchlike words of reproach’ (Bray 1994: 345).
Doctrinal exhortations are scarce on the ground in these regulations: for instance, while the theology of the Eucharist goes unelaborated, the type of ceremonial bread does not (although the latter may have implied the former) (Bray 1994: 348). This practical emphasis is partially no doubt because theology was considered the proper province of the Homilies, rather than of the communal conduct book that was the Injunctions. But it is also because the chief function of all official texts was to secure a harmonious, peaceful, and productive community by regulating behavior, and offering frequent reminders that ‘the laudable ceremonies of the Church [are] commanded by public authority to be observed’.4 In a similar spirit the Preface to the Book of Common Prayer refers any ‘doubts’ and ‘diversity’ about its usage to the bishop of a diocese, and from there to the archbishop—a hierarchical chain of command in which the final arbiter was the monarch. There was some recognition that political change could breed social disorder, or at least psychic confusion; tellingly, the one theological point made explicit in the Injunctions is that ministers ‘shall learn, and have always in a readiness, such comfortable places and sentences of Scripture [that] this vice of damnable despair may be clearly taken away and firm belief and steadfast hope surely conceived of all their parishioners’ (Bray 1994: 339). But for the most part the Injunctions worked from the outside in, on the premise that social order wrought through the regulation of conduct cultivated spiritual correctness, rather than the other way round.
The speed with which the Injunctions and the Act of Uniformity appeared in 1559 bespeaks the government's concern to pacify a community roiled not only by regime change but fresh memories of the Marian prosecution of heresy. This alacrity perhaps owed even more to the reign of Edward VI, for both the Prayer Book and the Injunctions were in fact conceived in the late 1540s and early 1550s, mostly by Thomas (p. 34) Cranmer, and thus lay waiting ready‐made and only gently used for their resurrection by Elizabeth I. It was perhaps the seemingly expedient nature of this recycling effort that led those in favor of yet further reform to hope that these protocols were but a temporary or provisional stopgap meant to undergo yet further reformation once order had been secured and the passage of regime change safely weathered. But while these protocols may have had to await their theorist in Richard Hooker, whose Ecclesiastical Polity was published in the 1590s, they were not, as some hoped, merely inaugural. Five years after Elizabeth's accession in 1563, the systematic theological rationale to be known (after their 1571 revision) as the Thirty‐Nine Articles appeared, and these too were based on the work of Archbishop Cranmer (the Forty‐Two Articles that had been published in June 1553 only to be rescinded a month later at the death of Edward VI have been described as ‘the most advanced systematization of Protestant theology then in existence anywhere’ (Bray 1994: 284). For all the Protestantism of their doctrinal pitch—justification through faith alone, the sufficiency of scripture, the vanity of purgatory, the memorial nature of the sacrament, predestination—the Articles also reiterated the practical primacy and permanency of the Book of Homilies and the Prayer Book; in other words, the outward, official, and ceremonial character of common worship had come to stay. This was Spenser's English church.
The details and character of these founding gestures are worth dwelling on, not only because they mark the church that Spenser knew, but also because they were the prime focus of subsequent conflict, conflict which would serve to hone the church, which would continue throughout Spenser's lifetime, and which would provide much of the grist for his poetry. This church was soon assailed from at least two principal directions. At first the intellectual and polemical energies of defending it were, predictably enough, directed toward the Roman Catholic institution from which it sought to distinguish itself. Bishop John Jewel spearheaded this effort, in his Paul's Cross ‘Challenge Sermon’ of 1560, his Apology of the English Church (1563), and his decade‐long exchange with Thomas Harding. He was joined not only by like‐minded establishment apologists but thinkers of a more radical bent, all of whom considered the attack against Rome a task that could never afford complacency, however much the association of Rome and Antichrist might appear both obvious and commonplace. These latter included men such as William Fulke, Master of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge—Spenser's college—whose ‘abstract policy [it was]… to leave no Catholic work of controversy unanswered, if he could help it’, a mission which kept him publishing regularly throughout the 1570s and 1580s (Milward 1977: 7). Keeping battle on this flank alive throughout the latter half of the sixteenth century were not just challenges conducted in print, but the regular punctuation of events such as the Papal Bull of 1570, declaring Elizabeth I a heretic and absolving her subjects under threat of excommunication of their obedience to her; the founding of the English Catholic seminaries at Douai in 1568 and Rome in 1579 to train a ministry for English Catholics; the fomenting focal point of Elizabeth's cousin and potential heir, Mary Queen of Scots (executed in 1587); the prospect (live until the early 1580s) of Elizabeth's marriage, possibly to a Catholic foreign prince; continental wars of (p. 35) religion and the ongoing campaign to subdue Catholic Ireland; and the advance upon England of the Spanish Armada in 1588, a battle in which the English navy allegedly owed its victory (or at least its narrow escape) to God's providential favor of English Protestantism as evidenced in the inclement conditions of the English Channel.
If events such as these stoked the fires of national antagonism with Roman Catholicism throughout Spenser's adult writing life, the English church was also fighting on another front soon after its establishment. Once it became apparent in the early 1560s that the government had little intention of further altering the protocols of the English church beyond their initial, essentially Edwardine, character, those voices in favor of putting yet more distance between England and Rome grew increasingly restive, in particular with the ceremonial aspects of the official church liturgy. The first shot across the bow came, appropriately enough, with dispute about external forms.5 The Vestiarian controversy, beginning in 1566 and continuing for about the next five years, took up the issue of the government‐prescribed apparel for ministers ‘such as cap, gown, tippet’ intended to sartorially mark them out from their congregants (Frere and Douglas 1954: 11). Ministers who found this requirement obnoxious and redolent of Rome cited in defense of their antipathy the contrary practices of the primitive church (for them, the mythical institution that was the measure of most things); its defenders, while granting the indifference of special clerical garments to spiritual function, maintained their importance as a mark of deference to temporal hierarchy.
Such Erastianism, or subordination of ecclesiastical to secular power, was of course the rub for those thinkers who hoped that their English church would continue to purge itself of ‘popish’ practices, and who became increasingly frustrated by Elizabeth's refusal to permit any parliamentary address to ecclesiastical matters. The debate over clothing was just the tippet of the iceberg, and in 1572 reformist hopes and grievances were laid out in an Admonition to Parliament (soon followed by a Second Admonition) urging the removal of institutional restrictions upon worship such as the prayer book— ‘an unperfect book, culled and picked out of that popish dunghill, the Masse book full of all abominations’ (Frere and Douglas 1954: 21). Some of the objections were to institutional aspects such as the cursory way in which moral infractions such as blasphemy or adultery were ‘slightly passed over’ by the traditional shame‐based penalties of ecclesiastical courts ( ‘With pricking in a blanket, or pinning in a sheet’), in contrast to the severe fines exacted for failure to conform to the ‘popish orders and ceremonies’ of the Prayer Book ( ‘excommunication, suspension, deprivation,…banishing, imprisoning, reviling, taunting, and what not’ (Frere and Douglas 1954: 17)). Of particular heinousness was the engrossing of multiple livings by allegedly ill‐trained individuals (who ‘run fysking from place to place… [and] covetously join living to living’), and the resulting underemployment of more qualified and deserving ministers (Frere and Douglas 1954: 10). Even worse was the garnishing of livings (and their income) by laymen in whose patronage they sometimes languished. The state‐prescribed, mass‐produced, and standardizing texts were seen as enabling such practices, in supplanting inspired preaching by rote reading, (p. 36) whereas in the primitive church, ‘ministers were not tied to any form of prayers invented by man, but as the spirit moved them, so they powred forth hearty supplications to the Lord.…Reading is not feeding, but it is as evil as playing upon a stage’ (Frere and Douglas 1954: 22).
Underwriting the economic and institutional critiques was a notion of worship signally different from the official one. The Presbyterian vision of a preacher in every pot was an argument not only for increased employment opportunities but about the origin and operation of prayer. How best to penetrate the sinful soul, to ‘reform the disordered, to bring them to repentance, and to bridle such as would offend’? Was it, as the state's model suggested, by scripting their actions from without, by the imposition of a standardized ritual of harmonious hierarchy? Or was it, as more aggressive Reformers thought, by reaching deep within the self, and penetrating that of another, by means of inspired exegesis of God's word? What in fact was the relationship between actions and inner spiritual states? Which came first, godliness or godly conduct?
The authors of the Admonition claimed to share the same goal as the established church, namely, to ensure that by restoring ‘Christ into his kingdom, to rule in the same by the scepter of his word, and severe discipline’, that ‘the Prince may be better obeyed, the realm more flourish in godliness’ (Frere and Douglas 1954: 18). Their understanding was that civil obedience came from within, from the affective reformation of the subject's will by means of a penetrating preaching that would ‘prick’ the conscience and ‘pierce the heart’ (Frere and Douglas 1954: 115). Root out sin and an obedient subject would result. According to this view, a ritual performance of corporate homogeneity was too generic, predictable, and insufficiently gripping, allowing people to tune out; repetition of gestures or words, far from inscribing social harmony or spiritual welfare, permitted individual deviance to flourish behind the masks of gesture:
One he kneeleth on his knees, and this way he looketh, and another he kneeleth himself asleep, another kneeleth with such devotion, that he is so far in talk, that he forgetteth to arise till his knee ache…another bringeth a book of his own, and though he sit when they sit, stand when they stand, kneel when they kneel,…most of all he intendeth his own book. Is this praying? (Frere and Douglas 1954: 24)
As Ramie Targoff has written, ‘What to the Establishment represented a successful mechanism for edifying large numbers of people was to the non‐conformists a spiritually deadening imposition upon minister and congregation alike’ (2001: 37). The Elizabethan regime's attempt in the 1570s to suppress ‘prophesyings’, exercises in which ministers vied to interpret scripture in public debates as a means to refine their exegetical skills, suggests that official authorities shared the sense that inspired preaching (or the public spectacle of competing interpretations) might well be quite stirring, but not in a good way. Unlike its critics, however, the regime was not willing to bet that the end result of such preaching would be a well‐ordered populace. Its optimism lay rather with the power of common prayer, which, far from being cynically considered as a merely superficial means and measure of conformity, (p. 37) was ‘a mechanism that successfully mold[ed] the naturally flawed impulses of the worshipper, whose faith can only be stimulated through regulated external forms’ (Targoff 2001: 48).6
The authors of the Admonitions contrast the idealism of their own position with the sordid political practicalities of the established one, but in a way their critique served to point out just how very impractical and utterly ideal the vision of unanimity offered by the official church was. The Admonition authors' caricature of the official model of worship as promoting a robotic social order at the expense of the soul's salvation denies the emphasis in both the Prayer Book and Injunctions on fostering Christian charity, and the belief that the harmony achieved through corporate congruence was not merely gestural but something quite spiritually profound. But if the idea that ‘now the whole realm would have but one use’ had a certain beauty, in truth the realities of personnel, language, custom, and culture meant that adherence to the established protocols varied by region as well as social strata (a rule of thumb being the further one got from the London–Cambridge axis, the less likely it would be to find parishes formed in the official image; on the other hand, as both sides admitted, it could be just as difficult to find doctrinaire Christians—let alone Protestant ones—even close to the center of the polity).7 The Act of Uniformity might specify penalties for its violation, but in a country with no police force or standing army, where in fact the only government official most people ever encountered was their local preacher, the prospect of their enforcement was a highly theoretical one, dependent on the persuasions (in both senses of the term) of the preacher. Order in the Tudor state, as Patrick Collinson has written, ‘was an elusive quarry to be pursued, or a treasure to be jealousy guarded’, particularly as the mechanisms of pursuit and possession were chiefly oratorical (1982: 2). Hence the charged locus of the pulpit. For Spenser, writing as of 1580 from Catholic Ireland, the image of this church—filtered through the lenses of nostalgia for his youth, homesickness, or geographical remoteness from the disputes—may have been especially ideal.
This is not to say that he was unaware that this was an ideal contested from within as well as from without. The terms and arguments forged by the Admonition controversy became definitive ones. Of this, as of the dispute with Rome, there was much to come, over many decades, and in a variety of rhetorical keys, from the serious to the satirical: replies, and replies to those replies; answers, answers to answers, defenses of answers to answers, and defenses of defenses. The combative polyvocality of Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar, in which homely shepherds debate (among other things) models of pastoral function, owes much to this fractious and capping climate of polemical rejoinder (as both Calendar and climate do to the rhetorical training of university education). The opening episode of The Faerie Queene, in which the snake‐woman ‘Error’ vomits upon the knight of Holiness a substance whose main ingredient is ‘bookes and papers’, mixed with ‘great lumpes of flesh’ and ‘loathly frogs and toades’, was an image no doubt deeply resonant for any Elizabethan pursuivant of religious controversy (I.i.20).
Thus in thinking about these contexts with respect to Spenser, a few caveats come to mind (besides that, of course, of textual vomit). First, many of the debates, (p. 38) whether between Protestants (established) and Catholics, establishment Protestants and more reform‐minded ones, or the latter and Catholics (just to choose three possible pairings of disputants), were indeed structured by a binary cast of rhetoric, due to the polemical habit in which the advocate of one position sought to configure his own as the absolutely true one (as in the True Church) and his opponent's as utterly false (i.e., Antichrist). But as the fact of at least three possible parties to the discussion indicates (and there were eventually more), the actual landscape was often more of a spectrum of fine distinctions, some hair‐splitting, within a single category: Christian. The fact that one of the best‐selling devotional manuals of this period, A Christian Directory guiding men to eternall salvation (1584), was a Protestantized edition, by a minister ‘conventionally classified as a moderate Puritan’, of a text authored by a Spanish Jesuit and midwifed for an English audience by an English one, spoke volumes on this score (literally—sixteen editions in 1585 alone) (Collinson 2002: 397). Complicating the picture further is that some debates were concerned with the practices of worship, and others were more theologically oriented (not, of course, that the one could not imply the latter: discussion over the role of state control involved and invoked assumptions about how souls were best pierced). However, much as criticism of the official church was in the 1570s and 1580s internal to that church rather than directed at it from outside, so too doctrinal differences—between, for instance, a model of salvation with little scope for human collaboration and one with more—had yet to emerge as either starkly discrete or linked to particular ideas of church governance and worship (e.g. hard‐line Calvinism with Puritan separatists). Though the initial lineaments of conflict would persist and entrench, it is more a matter at this time of emergent positions formulating and coalescing, of tectonic plates rumbling beneath the surface of official consensus. Spenser's most obvious portrait of religious controversy, figured in the difference between the virgin Una and the whore Duessa in Book I of The Faerie Queene, in fact addresses the way in which broad distinctions (and distinct broads) have the habit of turning into strange bedfellows. Clearly partisanal or binary portraits of this terrain, as Spenser well understood, were a kind of wish‐fulfillment, more an idealization than a description of Elizabeth I as Gloriana. If only.
Second, a historical gaze tends to accentuate the high relief of the peaks, not merely as opposed to the valleys or sloughs, but at the expense of the entire lumpy terrain: what looks like a crescendo of religious controversies between establishment and reformist forces—the late 1560s Vestiarian and the early 1570s Admonitions controversies culminating (for all Spenserian purposes) in the Marprelate tracts of the late 1580s—may not have seemed so purposive or portentous for someone living through them (again, especially if they had left England in 1580). Spenser was in his late teens in the later 1560s; his late twenties when the Shepherd's Calendar was published in 1579; and his late thirties when the controversy between the church and its internal critics reached its boiling point. If controversy was a constant, it was an intermittent constant, and while living through these decades may have been an experience of increasing tension, it is equally possible that the more perennial public flare‐ups over church discipline were the more unremarkable they became.
(p. 39) Third, while the rhetorical energy and industry of debates over the nature of worship in the 1570s and 1580s—the period most relevant to a consideration of Spenser's work—was indeed extraordinary, satire of clerical hypocrisy and incompetence was an English poetic convention operative as least as far back as Chaucer and as far forward as Trollope (nor is it, á la Moliere, exclusively English).8 Even in the course of Spenser's poetic career it occurs both early (Shepherd's Calendar, 1579) and late (Mother Hubbard's Tale, 1591). In the first instance, Spenser praises one ‘gentle shepherd Algrind’, a thinly disguised figure for Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of Canterbury, who fell out with Elizabeth I in 1577 for his refusal to suppress prophesyings; in the second poem, in ‘a plague o’ both your houses' move, he satirizes not only an indolent clergyman whose ‘care was, his service well to saine, | And to read Homilies upon holidays: When that was done, he might attend his playes’ (392–4) but also those who seek preferment by aping a precisionist mien, ‘fashion[ing] eke a godly zeale, | Such as no carpers contraryre reveale |…There thou must walke in sober gravitee…| Faste much, pray oft, looke lowly on the ground’ (MHT 493–8). Thus using anticlerical critique to peg Spenser's confessional politics may not yield much (even if such pegs were available in the 1570s or 1580s, and I am suggesting they were not). Public officials have always made broad targets, and clergymen were the only such officials with whom most early modern persons ever had contact. Nor was complaining about incompetent and hypocritical clergy just the habit of those speaking against the practices of the established church. Indeed, bishops, unlike most ardent reformers, were in the institutional position to do some actual reforming, and the energetic ones spent much of their time doing just that (Collinson 1982: 39–91). Furthermore, even a casual observer of this scene could not help but notice how reformist attacks on ecclesiastical abuses could function as an ideological disguise for equally sinister forms of greed: for instance, as a cover for aristocratic engrossment of ecclesiastical property. Allegory was not just the property of literature, and there were several wolves seeking to cloak themselves in the anticlerical sheepskin in this moment.
Spenser's works and life can indicate a variety of ‘takes’ on the contexts and issues of Elizabethan church reform, as well as on such doctrinal controversies as there were. Scholarly evidence for these hinges on things as various as his renderings of poetic conventions, explicit references to current controversies (or their veiling metonyms—e.g. traditional rural festivities for Catholic superstition), or his deployment of scriptural plots and personae. Spenser's dark political allegory in Book I of The Faerie Queene links Duessa's Mary Tudor with Orgoglio's Philip of Spain and portrays both as persecutors of England's patron saint, and suggests that we can at least rule out the possibility of Spenser's affiliation with Catholicism. Many of his villains seem to embody the worst of what Protestants considered a superstitious Catholic reliance on deceptive images. But other material suggests a sympathy for traditional religion: for instance, his malevolent portrait of Kirkrapine, despoiler of church property, or the House of Holiness' model of repentance through good works more commonly associated with Catholicism. On the other hand, Spenser models much of the plot of Book I after that of Foxe's Actes and Monuments, and Una's (p. 40) insistence on Redcrosse knight's elect status seems to gesture toward a more Calvinist model of salvation.
The landmarks of Spenser's career bespeak a gallimaufry as well. His first publication, as he reached the end of his time at the Merchant Taylors' grammar school, was a 1569 translation of the sonnet sequences by Petrarch and Du Bellay within the apocalyptic vision of a Theatre wherein be represented…the miseries and calamities that follow the voluptuous Wordlings by the Dutch Reformer Jan Van der Noot, whose Revelation‐indebted imagery suggests an energetic protest against traditional religious formations. A decade later, in The Shepherd's Calendar, when, as David Norbrook writes, ‘issues of ecclesiastical pride and luxury were newly controversial,’ ‘the rhetoric of the ecclesiastical eclogues is at least superficially similar to the radicals’ propaganda, and led many later Puritans to claim him as one of their own'—although Norbrook concludes ‘Spenser was clearly more disposed to compromise’ (Norbrook 1984: 60–2). In the early 1570s, when the Admonition Controversy began, Spenser had a front‐row seat, enrolled as he was at Pembroke College, Cambridge, formerly home to John Whitgift, the prime champion of the establishment. In 1576, two years after taking his MA (in effect, a preparation for preaching) Spenser took employment as secretary to the Bishop of Rochester, John Young, who worked to curtail the Presbyterian movement. But one year later he was secretary to the Earl of Leicester, a figure of some renown as a supporter of the reform‐minded. In his View of the State of Ireland Spenser acknowledges that the island's being in the grip of papistry did not overmuch help its assimilation to English rule, but rather than seeing Ireland as a prime canvas for immediate reformation, he recommends, contrary to his otherwise ‘scorched earth’ policy, that this religion be left untouched for the time being, as a kind of thing indifferent and maybe even useful in advance of other forms of colonial reform.9 He even recommends the repair and refurbishing of church buildings on the rather anti‐Puritan grounds that an impressive outward show of religion will attract ‘rude people to the reverensinge and frequentinge theareof’ (Prose, 223); he supported the foundation of Trinity College Dublin (1592) as a potential source of native Reformed ministers who could appeal to the populace in their native tongue (Prose, 142).10 Like another ardently Protestant poet, Sir Philip Sidney, Spenser himself, despite his layman's status, received the income from a living in his Irish lands—precisely the kind of abuse the authors of the Admonition had in their sights (McClane 1961: 101). Protestants were known for their suspicion of images; Spenser is a painter of glorious word pictures.11
In other words, if Spenser's poetry exhibits an awareness of the many possible positions along the ideological spectrum of Tudor Christianity, it may be because he had himself occupied more than a few, or at least had opportunity to observe their variety as he made his way toward both his poetic and political careers. From such varied experience he gained an ability to theorize the problem of religious difference; his poetry, even in Book I of the Faerie Queene, can often seem to look with a bird's eye upon these disputes, to address the problem of choosing among the various alternatives, and the way they have of collapsing into each other, rather than weighing in on one side or the other. In his travels across this landscape Spenser also could (p. 41) not have helped but acquire the sense that valuation of a given position along the spectrum was an exercise in relativism rather than absolutes (England was less Protestant than Geneva, but more so than France). No doubt he also was fully aware of how such positions could be mitigated by contexts and timing. Grindal, for instance, a hero of the Shepherd's Calendar, might have been a success when stationed in York, when his task consisted of tactfully reining in Northern recusants, but less so when that success promoted him to Archbishop of Canterbury, and he was required by Elizabeth I to exercise the same zeal with respect to the other extreme. Spenser may have been guilty of garnishing a living in Ireland, but it may have been for lack of a suitable occupant, or in order to prevent it from falling to the greater evil of a Catholic priest. The realities of governance require such compromises, whereas the anti‐establishment notes and daring topical address of The Shepherd's Calendar are—much like its bravura handling of verse forms—a young man's calling card. Staking out an Elizabethan religious identity was (and is) a finicky business. Hypocrisy was a preoccupation of Elizabethan anticlerical satire not merely because the church found itself pondering the relations of actions and insides, but because of the frequent need of Elizabethans to mediate between principles and practical, situational politics. Preaching and practice have always been difficult to align, but maybe nowhere more so than in a culture where the very relation of each to other was under intense scrutiny.
It may be that Spenser's stake in these issues lay less in urging a particular position than with using them as fodder for poetry in a prophetic vein and in a civic register.12 For an Elizabethan to write about religion, namely the arena where relations between the state and the subject were being hammered out at this time, might not necessarily be a declaration of commitment to anything but the public relevance of poetry and poets. No doubt to those in search of a specific and consistent ideological edge for our poet—by which is usually meant reformist‐leaning—this can sound prevaricating. There is a certain metonymic irony by which the construction of Spenser as inclined to establishment religious formulations even while he acknowledged the problems raised by reformist voices itself imitates what reformist voices understood as the prevarication of the established church. It does not help that Spenser's most beautiful spiritual expression is a tour de force of ritual syncretism, where the personal and the ritual, the domestic and the cosmic, earthly comforts and heavenly priorities all come together in a resoundingly harmonious vision. While intuiting a writer's temperament is no doubt folly, the writer of the Epithalamium seems, for that day at least, to have found in ritual something soul‐piercing indeed.
What we can say for certain is that Spenser's interest in ‘fashioning a gentleman’, as he proclaims in his ‘Letter to Raleigh’ that accompanied the 1590 edition of his epic, is of a piece with the questions raised by these controversies of and over the Elizabethan church. How are the best persons best made: from the molding of the interior subject from without, through the performance of proper behavior, or by letting that behavior be shaped by ideals antecedent to instruction? What is an ideal? Which is the best teacher, sermons or experience, doctrine or error? Is a person best fashioned by his own efforts, or is he the creation of another? Can you judge a knight by his (p. 42) armor, a virtuous woman by her clothing, or a person's intentions to the good (or ill) by their conduct? Does the armor make the knight, or the knight the armor?
These questions reverberate at a metacritical level as well: how does a reader read signs, and interpret events? Spenser uses the verb ‘to read’ and its variants in a dauntingly athletic range of index. Just as debate over the nature and character of the Elizabethan church largely turns on the role of external forms in shaping spiritual identity (collective rituals, clothing, visual vs aural prompts to worship), so the work of reading The Faerie Queene is preoccupied with the perils of interpretation: what do surfaces signify, and how far can action go to shape intention (or vice versa)? The poem's stylistic commitment to the personified rendering of psychological states has largely been attributed to Spenser's embrace of medieval literary topoi, of a piece with the archaism of his diction—the psychomachia of the morality play, for instance, which dramatizes an interior landscape through the personification of the components of personhood and the exchanges between them. But it could be argued that such a choice is not an archaism so much as Spenser's attempt, one he participated in with all parties to Reformation, to find a language that excavates and exfoliates the human interior, to penetrate the carapace of selfhood in order to render the inside as outside as possible. By far the holiest figure in Book I, ‘heauenly Contemplation | Of God and goodnesse was his meditation,’ is virtually transparent: ‘Each bone might through his body well be red, | And euery sinew seene through his long fast’ (I.x.47).
It is primarily the first book of Spenser's epic, the ‘Book of Holiness’, that has been considered the domain of ‘religion’, on account most obviously of its titular virtue, its narrative debt to Revelation, the range of topical allusions and their relative pointedness, and above all the dilemma it poses for its hero of distinguishing between, at the very least, two faces of religion. Its hero is Redcrosse knight, who bears the emblem of the cross on his shield, and arrives attempting to champion the virtuous Una ( ‘the one’) in her contest against a proverbial dragon, even as he is bewitched and bewildered by her rivals. These include the shape‐maker Archimago, his creation the succubus Una, and the villainous Duessa ( ‘doubleness’), herself bearing no casual resemblance to the Whore of Babylon as painted by the Book of Revelation.
The book thematizes the problems of excavation, of getting beyond the surface to the interior. This is a project not only for the protagonist but his reader, although the latter enjoys some of the relative benefits of dramatic irony by which a narrator tips off an audience to a character's mistakes in advance of their making. Redcrosse first appears ‘a gentle knight…pricking on the plaine’, in a much‐battered suit of armor, but we soon find out that its dents cannot possibly be evidence of his own experience, for ‘armes til that time did he neuer wield’ (I.i.1). Events soon prove him singularly inept if well‐intentioned, at least to start with—a knight far more on the outside than on the in. He fights a series of antagonists, dispatching them with an increasing degree of physical competence, but what really undoes him are matters of the heart: first, his belief that his lady is wanton, and later, his own capitulation to the persuasions of Despair.
While clearly it is the very human flaws in Redcrosse's inner affective state—his vainglorious zeal, his anger, his impatience—that are partly to blame for the (p. 43) two‐steps‐forward, one‐step‐back nature of his quest, the tragic aspects of his plight are also due to the sad fact that virtue's own appearances can mislead. Una herself seems largely exempt from the errors in judgment that bedevil her knight, and certainly her distresses do not rival those of later damsels (such as Florimell, Miss Out‐of‐the‐fire‐into‐the‐frying‐pan), but it is nonetheless the desireability of that very appearance, however modestly cloaked, that is largely responsible for her picaresque adventures among idolatrous satyrs and ravening beasts. It may even be the very cloak that is the problem: Una's seemly veil denotes both her virtue and her inner sadness (I.i.4), especially by contrast with the meretriciously attired and brazenly uncovered Duessa, but it is also what allows the villain Archimago to fabricate a false Una in order to deceive her knight: ‘Her all in white he clad, and ouer it | Cast a blacke stole most like to seeme for Una fit’. While Archimago perhaps could just as easily have fabricated her face as he does her ‘tender partes | So liuely, and so like in all mens sight’ (I.i.45), Spenser goes out of his way to emphasize the sartorial media of deception. So too it is not merely Despair's words that seduce Redcrosse to suicide, but his visual aids: first he reiterates the ponderousness of Redcrosse's errors, then, as a clincher, ‘He shew'd him painted in a table plaine, | The damned ghosts, that doe in torments waile’ (I.ix.49). Perhaps, as some readers would have it, there is some dig here at the media of Catholic (or the Elizabethan Settlement's) protocols of worship. But if Spenser laments the delusional powers of images, he also acknowledges (bleakly? ironically? gleefully?) that we have little alternative. Just as an English church could not disavow institutional protocols and still be a church as it was understood in this moment (people have to perform some collective actions, even if it is simply gathering in the same place at the same time), so too Una must in this world wear something, even if that costume causes as much trouble as it prevents.13
Also troubling is the fact that the clarity promised in the act of revelation proves elusive. The unveiling of Duessa by Prince Arthur reveals a loathly hag indeed, but such revelation also reveals yet another surface in need of decoding, one with a fox's tail, a bear's paw, and an eagle's claw in the place of feet, and in some ways far more enigmatic than a mere Whore of Babylon. Nor does it prevent Duessa from putting her clothes back on to deceive another knight, another day. This wry suggestion of futility also afflicts the construction of virtue: Redcrosse's innocence is the source of his goodness, but also of his weakness. His experiences breed knowledge and competence but also a rap sheet. While he finally achieves the object of this quest—victory over the dragon, and Una as his betrothed—he is not allowed to enjoy it, but needs to continue to ride forth. Goodness urges that we reject evil, but also that, at least in this world, we keep it around as a tutelary foil. There is no escaping the contradictions and double‐binds that constitute this vale of tears.
Such imbrications also register in the varied theological resonances of Book I. As Darryl Gless has argued, the theological terrain of the Elizabethan church is as complex and intertwined as the political or institutional in this moment, particularly as regards the respective roles of works and grace. Even Calvinism, with its commitment to a predestinarian schema, came close to acknowledging the collaborative nature of human salvation, such that works were not merely indicative of faith: ‘On (p. 44) the one hand, Red Cross’ salvation is assured; on the other it is impeded because the faithful must cooperatively labor and therefore must sin' (Gless 1994: 157). Clearly Redcrosse despite his elect status needs to make an effort—resting, let alone quitting, is a knight's greatest temptation. Nor does election exempt him from error or from a flirtation with despair; even if he isn't, objectively speaking, among the reprobate, it doesn't mean he can't feel like it on occasion; in fact, the elect might be the most vulnerable to despair (Snyder 1965). In fact, the work of Book I, insofar as it is achieved in the House of Holiness, seems to be finding a way to shoulder the burden of one's own inevitable sinfulness such that it doesn't impede either further application (despite its attendant sinfulness) or hope of salvation: ‘His mortal life he learned had to frame | In holy righteousness, without rebuke or blame’ (I.x.45). This seems a primarily affective, interior project. On the other hand, the rather traditional nature of Redcrosse's penitential regime—fasting, alms, even the revelation of his own saintly status—seems to suggest that good works matter in some way, even if it is not exactly clear how.14 Is such a theological medley evidence that Spenser was inconsistent or muddled, or that his culture was? Or, to frame it differently, does it merely testify to his sensitivity to the complex, dynamic, and poetically fruitful nature of these religious questions, even as they were being formulated simultaneously in his world? Does the poem unwittingly founder on these contradictions, or is it about them?
The book of Holiness presents the most obvious sight of Spenser's spiritual preoccupations. Its composition during the 1580s places it closest to the period of Spenser's English residence and hence proximity to religious controversy. But the heroes of Spenser's other five books—Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy—avatars of the overarching supervirtue ‘Magnificence’ embodied by Prince Arthur, could also be considered to represent ideals of a spiritual life in its both affective and social manifestations. They too are components of gentility, and while Spenser was no doubt concerned with social status, gentility in The Faerie Queene is as much a spiritual as a social quantity. In a way, the latter virtues are even more concretely Christian—at least at first glance—than the rather abstract and ethereal ‘Holiness’ (Gless 1994: 26–8). For instance, when Guyon, the hero of Book II, falls, he is protected by an angel in a passage modeled on the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, and Book VI is preoccupied with issues of ‘Grace’. In another way, the subsequent five virtues could be said to be dimensions of Holiness, spin‐offs from Redcrosse even as all six virtues comprise aspects of Magnificence himself.
Certainly the problems that bedevil Redcrosse (and his reader) in Book I persist throughout the work: mistakes in reading and judgment; the temptation to rest or even quit an arduous quest; the need to recognize and remedy character flaws in order to fight external villains; the persistent ingenuity of the enemy; and the wearying deferral of the much‐sought ethical competence to a heavenly horizon, whose flip side is of course delight and delay. While Spenser's sketch of a twelve‐book plan for the poem indicates he did not intend to break off halfway, the incompletion enacts attenuations that beset even the hardest working and best intentioned of his heroes. Guyon, the hero of Book II, is meant to moderate in himself and others (p. 45) ‘strong passion, or weake fleshliness’ (II.iv.2), but this is a task Redcrosse had to learn as well, leaping before looking into Error's den, ‘full of fire and greedy hardiment’ (I.i.14), or just as rashly, being ‘much enmoued’ and ‘thoroughly…dismaid’ by the speech of Despair (I.ix.48–50). Guyon's destruction of the Bowre of Blisse suggests the victory of restraint over sensual excess, but even as Holiness cannot renounce the world, and just as differentiating between churches means differentiating between women rather than transcending the category, so too temperance is not abstinence so much as moderation and mediation. In a similar vein, Britomart, the protagonist of ‘Chastity’ in Book III, is an untowardly active and ardent damsel in quest of her husband, making us wrestle with the paradox of the Protestant notion of married chastity, with its attempt to integrate an ethically productive sexuality into the world rather than quarantine it. Justice is perhaps the most ‘outward’ of Spenser's concerns (even as Book V's topical presence is most intense), but even there we find ourselves confronting differences between absolutes and their moderation, theories and practices. So too Courtesy is potentially misleading, ‘not in outward shows, but inward thoughts defynd’ (VI Proem, 5). In each instance Spenser asks us to interrogate a term we may have thought we understood, and makes us acutely aware of the contingencies entailed in defining it. In this sense, all of Spenser's epic provides a gloss on Elizabethan religions, with their pressing and intense desire for clarity, and the humbling recognition that such is not an earthly possibility.
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(1.) For a puritan Spenser see Hume (1984); for an Anglican one (even sympathetic to Catholicism), Whitaker (1950), McClane (1961), and Wall (1988); Gless (1994) discusses the entwined strands of Reformed doctrine in the Elizabethan moment and its registration in Book I of The Faerie Queene. King (1990, 2006) investigates Spenser's deep and broad connections to Reformation political and poetic cultures and provides a succinct overview of the reception history of Spenser's religious elements.
(2.) The Act of Uniformity was ratified by Parliament (its passage though the House of Lords helped by the fact that many bishoprics were unfilled); the Injunctions were issued in the name of Elizabeth alone after the Parliament went home (she and her chief minister, William Cecil, were responsible for the tinkering with the Edwardine template).
(3.) Rogation involved the processional recitation of the saint's litanies during the three days prior to Ascension Day (six Sundays after Easter).
(4.) Phrases in italics are Elizabethan amendments to the Edwardine text.
(5.) And in fact, doctrinal controversy (e.g. Calvinism vs Arminianism) did not really begin to roil the English church until the beginning of the seventeenth century. Sixteenth‐century dispute turned primarily on how people should worship.
(7.) See, for instance, Green (1996) for the vast array of catechisms in this period. The degree and nature of the English Reformation continue to be matters of critical debate. See, for instance, Dickens (1989), Collinson (1967), Duffy (1993), Haigh (1993, 2007), and Lake (1988).
(9.) Lewis (1953) states, ‘His religious views are elusive and he twice professes his laic ignorance; but they are certainly not those of a Protestant missionary nor of a bigot. He is sure that popery is not “the pure spring of lyfe” but “nothing doubtes” the salvation of many Papists’ (378). Norbrook (1984) argues slightly to the contrary: ‘In Ireland he was to advocate repressive measures to stamp out a still more conservative set of rural traditions and effect a Protestant cultural revolution’ (71).