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date: 28 February 2020

(p. xxvii) Introduction: Early Modern English Literature and Religion

(p. xxvii) Introduction

Early Modern English Literature and Religion

One would be hard pressed to imagine a time in the history of the British nations when questions of religion were more central to the development of society and culture than the early modern period. Religious belief and practice were already at the heart of daily lives, both public and private, but the consequences of the Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century had such an enormous and direct impact that very few people on those islands would remain unaffected by it. Temporal and spiritual allegiances shifted; churches and liturgies were re-ordered. English replaced Latin as the language of prayer and Scripture, and reforms challenged long-established ways of understanding the bases of faith and the consequences of sin and spiritual failure. This was a turbulent era, full of debate, dissent, and contention on fundamental issues not only of life, but also of death and eternity. From the opening of Henry VII’s reign to the death of Queen Anne, the realm witnessed a sequence of momentous religious and political events: the decisive break between the monarchy and the papacy; a succession of arresting changes to the religious regime; the proliferation of spy networks, plots of infiltration, and an unending process of international factionalizing; the establishment of a Protestant national Church; the formation of sectarian groups; civil wars and insurrections, and the great religio-political debates that followed in their wake. It was a time of danger and exile, of conspiracy and planned invasion, of war and bloodshed (both on the battlefield and the scaffold), but also of impassioned argument, of the genesis of faith communities, and of a multiplicity of visions testing key tenets of belief.

The relationship between these religious developments and the literature produced in English from the first Tudor sovereign to the last of the later Stuarts is profound and fascinating, and continues to constitute one of the most dynamic areas of early modern scholarship. Moreover, just as the era was one of the liveliest in Britain’s religious and political history, so, too, it stands as one of the greatest periods of writing in English—a strikingly fertile age of literary innovation and creativity. As each chapter of this collection indicates, to a very great extent this literary output was deeply exercised by religious (p. xxviii) issues, not only because spiritual questions were central to the early modern sense of the world and the self, but also because theology and rhetoric, the very ability to give expression to thought, went hand in hand. The key controversies of the Reformation were focused on the power of the word, the agency of intercession, and the efficacy of the sacraments: should the Bible be given pride of place above tradition and priestly authority, and what did it mean to repeat Christ’s words ‘This is my body’ over the bread of the Eucharist? These two central questions so often went straight to the heart of the undertaking of writing in the period: the power of language, and the function of the metaphorical imagination. Prose, drama, and poetry were deeply affected by the theological debates which engaged tightly with the fundamental undertakings of writing itself from a host of differing perspectives. Furthermore, the interaction between literature and religion irrevocably shaped modes of textual production, circulation, and consumption throughout the period covered in this collection in constantly changing ways. The doctrinal disputes and intellectual energies of the era were given vent through the power of oral rhetoric in sermons, dramas, demagogy, and polemical debate, and through the circulation of myriad written texts in manuscript and, primarily, print. Spirituality and textuality were intimately aligned.

In order to offer a firm historical basis for the subsequent discussions of literature and theology, this handbook begins with a section in which the hotly debated religious history of early modern Britain is set out in a clear and informative manner. The individual chapters in the section, proceeding in chronological sequence, analyse the events, doctrines, forms, and practices pertaining to each distinctive stage of the two hundred and fifty years under consideration. Nonetheless, at no point in the handbook’s preparation has there been any wish to neglect, or deflect attention from, the critical controversies of interpretation which surround the subject of early modern English literature and religion. Contributors were given full rein to speak to and, where the need arose, to speak at variance with each other, giving telling insights into aspects of early modern culture and belief which continue to challenge scrutiny and analysis.

In all of the five sections which structure this collection, each chapter presents original research bringing together history, theology, and literary texts in innovative and thought-provoking ways. In the first section, the rapid changes in religious allegiances and practices during the early modern period are consistently nuanced by an awareness of the continuities underlying even the most disputed points of doctrine and faith. The second section lays the literary foundations for the discussion of religion and literature by studying the basic materials available to writers in this era—that is, the literary genres in and through which faith was most often expressed and defined. Some of these may not surprise a modern reader (lyric poetry, plays, polemics, and autobiographies, for example) but other, less familiar kinds of texts perhaps (such as translations, prophecies, newsbooks, sermons, and neo-Latin writings) were equally important literary modes at the time. Each chapter in this second section discusses the nature of the genre, its appropriateness to the exploration of religion, and the ways in which it developed during the period, using a wide variety of textual examples to bring the genre vividly to life on the page.

(p. xxix) Mid-way through the collection, the third section focuses on a number (rather than an exhaustive listing) of representative individual writers who made significant contributions to the early modern literature of religion. Any selection of this kind is bound to displease some readers, but we have chosen authors to reflect a range of historical moments, literary genres, and religious perspectives. Beginning with the early sixteenth-century humanists and ending with Milton, the chapters in this section address the work of writers of theology, philosophy, martyrology, drama, lyric, epic, translation, sermons, and polemics. However, no author writes in isolation, and at least two of the chapters in this third section acknowledge this by looking at the work of a circle of writers (Erasmus, More, Colet, and friends) and a brother and sister literary partnership (Philip and Mary Sidney). This theme of collaboration is developed further in the fourth section, which recognizes the importance of communities both in terms of religious experience and literary production. Ranging from Catholic women in continental convents to groups of Quakers meeting nearer home, and from supranational communities of Jews or Muslims to puritan settlers in the new world, these interpretative groups formed a vital part of the creative interplay of early modern literature and religion. The handbook concludes with a fifth section that addresses some of the recurring themes debated in early modern religious life, from the nature and function of the Bible to the much disputed relationships of la vita activa and la vita contemplativa, religion and science, the parameters of the godly and the ungodly life, body and soul, death and judgement. Having begun with the specific details of historical contexts, the volume ends, appropriately, with the vastness of eternity.

As the sections unfold, it soon becomes evident that the hallmarks of this handbook are: the breadth and range of approaches to literature and religion; the chronological span of its interests; the spectrum of religious faiths, denominations, and allegiances; the variety of literary genres and authors; the multiplicity of interpretative communities and their locations; and the spread of creative and spiritual issues addressed. We also considered it vital to attend to early modern religion not simply as a matter of written doctrine or private spirituality—important though these are—but also as an experience processed through liturgical, cultural, and theatrical performance and polemic, and as understood within households, faith communities, and like-minded groups. Across the chapters and sections of this book, significant attention is devoted to some categories of writers whose role may have been underplayed in earlier studies. These include the sectarian groups for whom preaching and printed conversion narratives became a central aspect of their identity, and early modern women writers, whose work was both challenged and facilitated by religious experience and spiritual reflection. The handbook also demonstrates a pioneering approach to the study of English literature and religion by its attention to groups based outside Britain, including exile and settler groups abroad and the non-Christian faith communities of Judaism and Islam.

We do not anticipate (or advise) that users of this handbook will read it from cover to cover. It is obviously a book to be used selectively and not necessarily sequentially, and we trust that the various supporting features surrounding the main body of the book will assist readers in making the most of what it has to offer. The chronology preceding (p. xxx) the first section gives a detailed factual overview of religiously significant events and texts in parallel, and, as a reference guide, it is designed to enhance the reading of any of the chapters. It highlights the interaction of state decisions, Church authority, authors, texts, readers, and audiences, indicating just how closely religious change and literary intervention dovetailed during this period of relentless flux. The handbook sets out to welcome the broadest readership, and the research guide following the final chapter should assist those who are new to working in this period or on a given topic. Equally importantly, we believe that the extensive bibliography will be an invaluable resource to all readers, giving both a range of primary texts and an overview of secondary reading on all aspects of our subject. Finally, the comprehensive index will enable readers to make cross-references and discern otherwise hidden continuities across the period. A reader interested in one author, theme, denomination, or doctrine, for instance, may not find a chapter devoted to that particular topic, but is advised to make use of the index to discover the variety of contexts in which it nevertheless features.

No single book can hope to deal comprehensively with such a wide-ranging and complex topic as the interaction of religion and literature across several countries over a period of nearly two hundred and fifty years. However, it is our hope that the five sections of this handbook, supported by the chronology and bibliography, will open up a sufficiently wide range of topics and approaches to enable newly enlightened readings and inspire further research into this fascinating era of literary and religious experience.