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date: 15 January 2021


Abstract and Keywords

This book aims to serve as a comprehensive guide to the varieties of early modern prose, from the reign of the first Tudor, Henry VII, to just before the Civil War, a crucial period of about 150 years. It covers an extraordinary range of material, from the most sophisticated and intricate sermons by the finest theological minds of the age, to domestic manuals detailing household tasks, the very stuff of life; from rhetorical treatises designed to produce the highest artistic forms to tracts on witchcraft, intended to reveal the true extent of a problem and so to protect individuals from harm; and from the most personal devotions to public acts of collective responsibility. Indeed, what invariably emerges from the study of these diverse forms of writing is the wealth of connections between types, styles, and modes of thought and writing.

Keywords: English prose, early modern prose, sermons, domestic manuals

This handbook is designed to fill an obvious need: the lack of a comprehensive guide to early modern prose. The volume consists of thirty-nine substantial essays, providing a reader with a guide to the varieties of early modern prose, from the reign of the first Tudor, Henry VII, to just before the Civil War, a crucial period of about 150 years. In 1485, printing had only just been introduced to the British Isles, and most material circulated in manuscript form. Many types of non-fictional narrative, such as history, were produced in verse as well as prose and reached a limited audience of the literate. Virtually all literature of high status was written in verse. By 1640 far more people could read and were eager to participate in the public sphere of print, whether as readers or writers, consumers and/or producers, and prose had become the most established medium of written communication. Moreover, an explosion in the production of printed texts, as pamphlets from every quarter and from every possible point of view, written by a wider spectrum of English society than ever before, changed the nature of public culture for ever. Prose was now the dominant form of the written word, as it has been ever since. Literary forms such as the novel, which developed out of the varieties of prose fiction and romance produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the newspaper were about to transform the habits and horizons of a nation of newly educated readers, methods of communication for a new, vastly expanded public sphere. Both forms had a common origin in the news books and journalism that was also proliferating as the printing press became ever more technologically sophisticated and adept at producing text quickly and easily.

This handbook cannot claim to be comprehensive, despite its obvious bulk. There is simply far too much material to cover adequately and decisions have been taken to make this work as representative as possible. Furthermore, prose can be envisaged in two overlapping ways. First, and more obviously, as the bulk of material produced in prose, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as ‘Language in the form in which it is typically written (or spoken), usually characterized as having no deliberate metrical structure (in contrast with verse or poetry)’; second, as the ways in which non-metrical language can be and was employed in the period. An approach to the first definition would look at historical narrative, legal material, conduct manuals, theological tracts, literature, and so on; and an approach to the second, the style and form of prose produced, explaining what defined its character (p. 2) and made it distinctive. The writers in this volume have all attempted the challenging task of including comment on each aspect of the material under discussion in their essays so that the handbook contains a balance of an explanation of the varieties of prose writing and an analysis of its various forms, styles, and possibilities.

The essays cover an extraordinary range of material, from the most sophisticated and intricate sermons by the finest theological minds of the age (John Donne and Richard Hooker), analysed in Peter McCullough's essay, to domestic manuals detailing household tasks, the very stuff of life, explored in Catherine Richardson's; from rhetorical treatises designed to produce the highest artistic forms (Catherine Nicholson) to tracts on witchcraft (P. G. Maxwell-Stuart), intended to reveal the true extent of a problem and so to protect individuals from harm; and from the most personal devotions to public acts of collective responsibility. Indeed, what invariably emerges from the study of these diverse forms of writing is the wealth of connections between types, styles, and modes of thought and writing. The functional and the ornamental are often not as far apart as might be assumed. As Alan Stewart points out in his essay on letter-writing, letters might look like intimate and private communication between two individuals, but are almost always highly crafted works that were designed in terms of well-established models and reached a wider audience than we often realize. And, as R. W. Maslen argues in his essay on the career of Robert Greene, the first professional writer in England who transformed our understanding of the possibilities of prose writing, what looks like something new and different was often written with an acute understanding of the culture from which it emerged. Greene's prose can seem anarchic and to bear little relation to the moral treatises that were in general circulation, but that is because the moral of his tales is that real life teaches us lessons that qualify and transform what we think we will learn in books. Prose was ordered, regimented, and carefully designed, but was never easy to control. Moreover, the relationship between theory and practice was often complicated and confusing. In large part this was due to the ways in which ideas were transmitted and stored. People wrote out notable pieces of wisdom and startling expression in their commonplace books, and Jennifer Richards shows us that these intellectual practices and habits of mind link the prose of such apparently diverse figures as the mid-Tudor intellectual, William Baldwin, and the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton. Choice phrases and maxims were extracted from major works and then recycled either as the central part of an argument, or as useful supporting evidence.

The volume also reveals a series of struggles between different types and forms of writing. On the one hand, we have the proliferation of prose romance in its various guises, as the essays of Helen Moore, Neil Rhodes, Gavin Alexander, and Mary Ellen Lamb demonstrate, a form of writing that always threatened to get out of hand, travelling beyond established boundaries of sense and taste and ‘dilating’ outwards away from its narrative core into new and sometimes bizarre areas. It is easy for us to undervalue, or even to dismiss romance as a vulgar and debased literary form, but it was taken seriously and undertaken by some of the most incisive writers in early modern England, and served to define the scope and nature of women's writing. On the other hand, there is the heavily didactic and ordered prose of John Foxe's Acts and Monuments of the Christian (p. 3) Church, its repetitive structures working to produce an apparently inescapable series of conclusions, as Thomas S. Freeman and Susannah Brietz Monta's essay reveals; or the equally controlling cadences of John Knox and George Buchanan, made visible in Caroline Erskine's analysis. Yet even—or perhaps especially—in religious debate chaos threatens to overwhelm order, as readers of Joseph L. Black's essay on the Marprelate Controversy and Kevin Killeen's on the translations of the Bible will soon realize. The need to explain and define the truth and to banish evil and falsehood invariably produced complex and messy texts. Put another way, the conflicting demands of accurate brevity and expansive copiousness pull writers of prose in opposite directions, a contrast that will be obvious to readers of Paul Salzman's essay on the variety of essay forms in the early modern period, from Bacon's brief and controlled interventions to the sustained and wandering explorations of Sir William Cornwallis, a writer very much in the mould of the significantly more prolix Michel de Montaigne.

Any survey of prose has to include more types and forms than any other category of writing used to quantify and explain the variety of writing in the early modern period. Essays in this handbook deal with apparent ephemera such as news pamphlets and news books (Joad Raymond), and cheap and popular print forms such as jest books (Anne Lake Prescott and Ian Munro), to the eloquent expansiveness of Richard Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (Rudolph Almasy), Robert Burton's brilliant, highly individual exploration of contemporary culture, The Anatomy of Melancholy (Angus Gowland), and the sustained meditations of Thomas Browne (Kevin Killeen). Following Peter Burke's insight, we need to acknowledge that although high culture was designed to reach a restricted audience, popular culture was everyone's culture and was consumed by monarchs as well as the general public. Queen Elizabeth, like most aristocrats, had a robust and vulgar sense of humour and enjoyed the bawdy nature of jest books, with their emphasis on bodily functions. Equally, what might be imagined as a clear-cut contrast between the ordered and precise and the anarchic and transgressive, proves to be anything but, as Claire Preston's essay on the scientific prose of Francis Bacon, Thomas Browne, and Robert Boyle demonstrates. Jacques Derrida and Tzvetan Todorov pointed out some time ago that genres are inescapably in discourse. They have markers that persuade the reader to consume them in a particular way while always containing traces of other forms of writing, residues that cannot be eliminated from our understanding of how such texts work and how they were read. Nandini Das's essay on Richard Hakluyt the younger, the most famous armchair traveller in early modern England, shows how there was an extensive interaction between travel writing and prose fiction, each type of writing borrowing style and content from the other so that voyage narratives were often imagined in terms of chivalric romance and heroic tales narrated as mercantile quests for survival and profit, as much as glory and honour.

A major part of the handbook explores the literary prose of the period. Again, this reveals the close links between apparently diverse forms of writing. Tom Betteridge and Gillian Austen show how both William Baldwin, author of the first sustained prose fiction in English, Beware the Cat, and George Gascoigne, among the most prolific, brilliant, and (p. 4) underrated of Elizabethan writers, looked back to Chaucer in order to determine how they should write English prose, conscious of their place within a distinctly English tradition of writing. Gascoigne could never leave his intellectual coordinates to one side and his true report of the devastation of Antwerp ‘reveals a considerable amount of rhetorical structuring and formal organisation’. Even when experimenting in what might appear to us to be a literary vacuum, writers such as John Lyly (Katharine Wilson) and Thomas Nashe (Jason Scott-Warren) were acutely aware of their intellectual heritage. In turn, Lyly's distinctive contribution to English prose style, the heavily balanced rhetorical parallels known as ‘Euphuism’ from his most important prose work, had a major impact on the development of English prose in the next two centuries, even after his initial dominance had been challenged by writers eager to break free from his spell. Nashe's contribution was not confined to The Unfortunate Traveller and his prose works, which often remained as single editions after his work was censored in 1599, defined a very different mode of writing, one based on startling juxtapositions, capable of joining the ‘disgusting and miraculous’. The complicated and often tortuous attempt to think through the eloquence that could be achieved in prose, simultaneously demonstrating an acute understanding of literary traditions and the desire to break free and establish new forms of writing, characterizes the career of Gabriel Harvey, in many ways a typical figure, as well as an important innovator (Henry Woudhuysen). Harvey is all too often remembered as Nashe's victim in their pamphlet war, but there is far more to Harvey's prose than this exchange indicates, and Harvey was often as innovative as Nashe, especially in his manuscript Letter-Book.

There is also a significant concentration on English translation in this volume, a vital part of the works produced in prose and one of the most widely consulted, but all too often omitted from serious analyses of early modern writing. This omission has seriously limited our understanding of the culture of the early modern period. Gordon Braden's essay provides us with a snapshot of the types of prose translation through a series of paradigmatic examples and judiciously selected quotations, while Peter Mack concentrates on probably the most famous prose translation in Renaissance England, John Florio's brilliant attempt to capture the style and spirit of the Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Neil Rhodes explores the significance of the bawdy, irreverent, but often politically astute and challenging Italian tales which helped to define a culture for the English, which was simultaneously ennobling, disgusting, and threatening, while Alexander Samson analyses the most significant element of Spanish culture that reached these shores. Lazarillo de Tormes was translated in 1576 and helped to define an English understanding of Spanish literature and culture as concerned with the struggle to overcome the cruel and hostile forces that besieged the peasant in an authoritarian society. Such a world encouraged sly cunning and militated against moral probity, at least until the good fortune of the ‘picaro’ ran out. It is easy to see how such a work had a major impact on the course of English fiction, notably Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller, published just over a decade later, as well as the earthy style of prose and drama. At the opposite end of the scale was Thomas More's Utopia, translated into English by Ralph Robinson in 1551. Robert Appelbaum's essay charts the variety and complexity of the Utopian tradition in English, one that embraced both political and scientific (p. 5) experiment, looked towards a better future, satirized the present, and produced a distressing vision as often as a hopeful one.

Prose defined and established the character of English life and thought. Probably the most influential book produced in this period, having even more impact than the Bible, was the Book of Common Prayer, first produced under the aegis of Thomas Cranmer in 1549, and then undergoing significant changes in the next 120 years. As Daniel Swift demonstrates, we owe more than our understanding of the liturgy and forms of religious ceremony to Cranmer's project. It also gave us a vast number of everyday phrases which have characterized the nature of colloquial English to the present day, even though most native speakers are unaware of the origins of the phrases they use. Other essays show how this common language was used by a vast array of ordinary people, in diaries (Adam Smyth) and the various forms of life writing (Danielle Clarke). Again, we find that what looks as if it is an intimate, private form of writing that opens a window into the author's soul is in fact carefully crafted and structured. As Adam Smyth suggests, diaries, like that of Lady Margaret Hoby, were ‘less a path to inwardness, and more a log-book of actions across several spheres’, most closely related to one of the most popular forms of print culture, the almanac. Life writing as a category did not exist in this period and we have to construct a category from miscellaneous writings after the event, one reason why so many inexperienced readers are surprised at the lack of biography and autobiography, as well as materials for constructing a life that survive from the sixteenth and, to a lesser extent, the seventeenth century. What emerges is an interesting difference between the life writings of men and women, the latter willing to ‘exploit the fluidity of the discourses of the self in order to fashion subjectivities strongly rooted in the private world, whilst reflecting on and affecting the public one’ (Danielle Clarke).

Prose had a major role in exhorting, persuading, and forcing people to act, from the proclamations, treatises, and political arguments discussed in Nicholas McDowell's essay, to nuanced discussions and staged dialogues on major issues analysed in Cathy Shrank's, a seriously under-explored genre that enabled writers to carry on debates that had often started in conversation, the staple form of education in a period in which communication was still predominantly oral. After all, ‘political argument and change are registered and initiated in prose’ (Nicholas McDowell). Of course, a number of genres and modes of writing can accommodate widely divergent purposes, styles, and methods, as Bart Van Es's essay on history writing demonstrates, showing the differences between the inclusive, apparently non-evaluative nature of the chronicle and the controlled, focused direction of the historical narratives produced by a Bacon or a Daniel. In his equally wide-ranging essay, Dermot Cavanagh follows the course of the sixteenth century through three major satirists: Erasmus in his Praise of Folly, a Menippean satire designed to expose and correct vice; Stephen Gosson's rather more vigorous polemic against the theatres, The School of Abuse; and Thomas Nashe's disorienting and disturbing polemical fiction, The Unfortunate Traveller, in which ‘the narrator learns the full extent of the theatrical imposture that passes for reality in the world around him and that sustains the appearance of reality’.

(p. 6) The significance of prose has at last been re-recognized after a long hiatus when it was only sparingly taught in schools and universities. Major new editions of the works of Sir Francis Bacon, Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, and Richard Hakluyt are well underway; there has been a great deal of serious work on sermons, especially Lancelot Andrewes and John Donne; there is renewed interest in Lady Mary Wroth, Sir Philip Sidney, William Baldwin, and Raphael Holinshed; as well as major new works on types and forms of writing, notably letters, jest books, popular romance, and print culture. The danger is not that this handbook will fail to find an audience but that the amount of work may leave it in need of revision and updating in the near future.

Further Reading

Barbour, Reid. Deciphering Elizabethan Fiction (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993).Find this resource:

Black, Joseph L., ed. The Martin Marprelate Tracts: A Modernized and Annotated Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).Find this resource:

Fowler, Elizabeth, and Roland Greene, eds. The Project of Prose in Early Modern Europe and the New World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).Find this resource:

Mander, Jenny, ed. Remapping the Rise of the European Novel (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2007).Find this resource:

Monta, Susannah Brietz, and Margaret W. Ferguson. Teaching Early Modern English Prose (New York: Modern Language Association, 2010).Find this resource:

Newcomb, Lori Humphrey. Reading Popular Romance in Early Modern England (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).Find this resource:

Pooley, Roger. English Prose of the Seventeenth Century, 1590–1700 (London: Longman, 1993).Find this resource:

Raymond, Joad, ed. The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture: Vol. 1, Cheap Print in Britain and Ireland to 1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).Find this resource:

Rhodes, Neil, ed. English Renaissance Prose: History, Language and Politics (Tempe, AZ: Medieval and Renaissance Text Society, 1997).Find this resource:

Salzman, Paul, ed. An Anthology of Elizabethan Prose Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).Find this resource:

—— ed. An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).Find this resource:

—— English Prose Fiction, 1558–1700: A Critical History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).Find this resource:

Travitsky, Betty S. ‘The Possibilities of Prose’, in Helen Wilcox, ed., Women and Literature in Britain, 1500–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 234–66.Find this resource: