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date: 08 July 2020

(p. 449) The Bible and Literature (p. 450)

(p. 451) Introduction to Part V

Throughout the early modern period, the Bible proved a fruitful source for authors. The influential tradition of biblical paraphrase allowed writers to extemporize upon scripture, merging scriptural narratives with their own. In discussing the ‘religious turn’ of scholarship, Ken Jackson and Arthur Marotti demonstrate that it is imperative to understand individual spirituality and the ethics that underpin religion as a lived experience in the early modern period. ‘Religion’, Jackson and Marrotti write, ‘is not just another field for anthropological investigation or political decoding. There are ethical and philosophical issues at stake’.1 While critics have long taken seriously the complex religious poetics of texts such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590–6) and John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, the chapters collected here demonstrate how thoroughgoing the early modern weaving of the scriptural into the literary was, taking in drama, poetry, and prose; considering the Bible as a direct and a pervasive cultural influence; and examining the multiple ways in which writers engaged with, took on, and appropriated scriptural and religious content to a variety of ends.

Over the last twenty years, important scholarship has unearthed the enormous contribution that women made to biblical paraphrase, which could be blunt and uncompromising in its political stance.2 In 1589, Anne Dowriche printed The French History, a lengthy and impassioned account of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 where, in Paris, after a series of assassinations of prominent Protestant Huguenots, other Huguenots were slaughtered by a Catholic mob. Appearing in print a year after the defeat of the Spanish (p. 452) Armada’s attempted invasion of England, Dowriche’s text interweaves biblical narrative and contemporary politics to produce a powerful attack on the Catholic Church and militant Catholicism.

Women’s engagement in devotional writing has been the subject of intense focus, challenging orthodoxies that once presented such writing as a ‘safe’ and marginal activity.3 Perhaps most notably, Mary Sidney, Aemelia Lanyer, and Anne Southwell all contributed to a culture of women’s writing that, as Sarah Ross shows in this volume, is the genesis of women’s writerly engagement with scripture—an engagement that continued throughout the seventeenth century. The description that first appeared in print in 1591 of Katherine Stubbes as a virtuous—if not compulsive—reader of the Bible shows that women also engaged in biblical culture as readers:

[Stubbes’s] whole delight was to be conversant in the Scriptures, and to meditate upon them day and night inasmuch as you could seldome or never have come into her house, and have found her without a Bible or some other good book in her hands. And when she was not reading, she would spend the time conferring, talking and reasoning with her husband of the word of God and of Religion: asking him what is the sense of this place and what is the sense of that.4

As noted in the general introduction, Henry VIII may have banned women from reading the Bible, but by the late sixteenth century, Bible reading had become central to female domestic and public life. While the account of Stubbes’s life and death asserts that she deferred to her husband when seeking explication of parts of the Bible, it emphasizes that women could and did read and interpret scripture and this reading of the Bible led some women to write their own biblically informed literature. Regardless of the levels of reading literacy in the early modern period, biblical literacy was high.

This post-Reformation familiarity with the Bible allowed writers to weave the biblical together with their non-biblical narratives. Helen Wilcox examines the cultural and literary impulses current in the year that the King James Bible was published. By locating the King James Bible in its cultural moment, Wilcox makes us aware of the ways in which its vocabulary is part of a wider cultural nexus that accommodates other literary forms. Following on from this appreciation of its literary context, Hannibal Hamlin addresses the literary style of the King James Bible, relating it to various cognate prose styles in the seventeenth century. Early modern translators of the Protestant Bible translated word for word; rather than trying to translate the thoughts or idioms of the text, they focused upon the language and created a distinct style. The reception history of the King James Bible shows that its language seemed strange to seventeenth-century readers, but despite this strangeness, the King James Bible influenced literature over the next three centuries.

The remaining chapters in this section examine the various ways in which writers appropriated and reworked scripture. Sarah Ross examines women’s writerly engagements with the genre of biblical verse paraphrase. Starting with Lucy Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder and the uneasy relationship this biblical epic has with the epic genre, Ross (p. 453) resituates the text within a framework of seventeenth-century women’s literary engagements that use biblical verse paraphrase to reflect on British society and politics.

The cultural importance of the Bible was not, of course, new to the post-Reformation period. Medieval Mystery Plays drew heavily on biblical narrative, but it is commonly accepted that these public, communal, and guild performances more or less died out in the sixteenth century. The Reformation did not, however, bring about the complete demise of exegetical and heuristic uses of drama and the Bible. Among the rich stock of classical texts rediscovered with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 was Aristotle’s Poetics. Russ Leo argues that the Poetics became a means by which scripture could be read. With this came the emergence of biblical comedy and tragedy, which, performed and published in Latin, crossed confessional divides and national boundaries. Leo attends to a range of largely forgotten biblical tragedies, the theological questions they pose, and attempts to comprehend the scripture in dramatic terms.

The sheer volume of literary responses to the Bible would seem to be at odds with Protestantism’s adherence to sola scriptura, taken strictly, especially biblical paraphrasing and quotations that cut through the biblical text. Devotional writers incorporated scriptural phrasing into their poetry and in doing so frequently quoted the Bible out of context. Alison Knight argues that early modern devotional writers understood sola scriptura within a framework of coherence and contexture. Focusing upon the poetry of George Herbert, Knight shows how text is woven together; scriptural verse becomes connected to the phrasing that encloses it, thereby mediating and conflating the meanings of the different texts. This blending creates an interplay between the scriptural and profane phraseology of devotional writers.

Nancy Rosenfeld explores how John Bunyan used the Bible to construct narratives of his personal suffering and redemption, refiguring the biblical narrative in a manner that paved the way for the kinds of literary representation that later would typify the construction of characters in the novel. Consequently, Bunyan implicitly pushes towards a mode of engagement with the Bible that moves beyond sola scriptura and towards a literary response to biblical exegesis. Such a practice was perhaps most fully and brilliantly developed by Milton. Finally, Barbara Lewalski turns to the most famous of all seventeenth-century biblical epics, Milton’s Paradise Lost and the freedoms that it takes with scripture. Milton may have drawn heavily from scripture in composing his biblical epic, but it is also clear that he takes ample and at times disconcerting liberties in his amplification of the Bible.

Collectively, these essays emphasize the rich and varied literary responses to the Bible and how a culture so concerned with authenticity of biblical reference, and with the sanctity of the unmediated text, regularly augmented, expanded on, and mediated scripture in many different literary forms. The scriptures were important to men’s and women’s literary and domestic writing throughout this period: whether in literature or as literature, the Bible and biblical poetics was central to early modern literary culture. (p. 454)


(1) Ken Jackson and Arthur Marotti, ‘The Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Studies’, Criticism, 46 (2004): 181.

(2) See e.g. Kate Narveson, Bible Readers and Lay Writers: Gender and Self-Definition in an Emergent Writing Culture (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012); Michele Osherow, Biblical Women’s Voices in Early Modern England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).

(3) Erica Longfellow, Women and Religious Writing in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).