Confessionalisation, the Reformation, and the English Book Trade

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Written by John N. King

John N. King holds appointment as Humanities Distinguished Professor of English and of Religious Studies, and Distinguished University Professor at The Ohio State University. In addition to teaching in Nigeria and the United States, he has spent long intervals at the University of Oxford, Brown University, and major rare book and manuscript libraries in North America and Europe. His books include English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition; Tudor Royal Iconography: Literature and Art in an Age of Religious Crisis; Spenser's Poetry and the Reformation Tradition; and Milton and Religious Controversy: Satire and Polemic in Paradise Lost. His most recent book, Voices of the English Reformation: A Sourcebook, revives many literary texts that have remained inaccessible for hundreds of years.


It gives me great pleasure to respond to Dr. Tom Betteridge’s stirringly written essay, “Confessionalisation and the English Reformation.” He offers a convincing argument concerning four texts that demonstrate that what we regard as Protestantism and Catholicism emerged gradually and only underwent codification during and after the era of the Council of Trent. As such, he claims that these religious movements constitute effects rather than causes of Reformation. He focuses on four books published during a tumultuous period of twenty years that witnessed the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey; royal divorce; schism from the Church of Rome; beheadings of Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, and John Fisher; the Act of Supremacy; the Dissolution of the Monasteries; the Act of Six Articles; and much more. As a group, these books frame the Henrician Reformation with a range of responses to the ambiguous state of theology and ritual prior to the advent of confessionally driven publication during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary. Governing church and state as an English Pope, Henry VIII nodded in a “Protestant” direction, on the one hand, by embracing an antipapal and antimonastic agenda that shared many elements in common with the German Reformation. On the other hand, Lutheran theology remained anathema during an era when the Church of England retained its hierarchical structure and official theology and ritual remained unchanged. Among these four texts, The Parliament of Birds is least concerned with religious doctrine per se, but it was published at a time when English authorities nervously attempted to prevent the spread of Lutheran ideas.

In this response, I would like to accept what I shall accept as Tom Betteridge’s invitation to consider how the confessional issues in raised by these books relate to their circumstances of publication, their material construction, and their reception by readers. He does this, I think, when he comments on how the material form of Read Me and Be Not Wroth invites the reader to collaborate in the production of meaning by presenting the dialogue between Watkyn and Jeffraye in a form unmediated by marginal glosses or other forms of paratext. This book is similar to the others both in typography and format. Like them, it is printed in black letter. Northern European printers reserved this typeface for books written in the vernacular for an audience made up of illiterati (i.e., readers unable to read the learned languages of Latin and Greek). Like all but one, it is gathered as an affordable octavo book. (Even though it is printed in quarto format, the Parliament of Fowls is the smallest and least expensive of these books.)

Despite these similarities, I join Dr. Betteridge in placing Read Me and Be Not Wroth in a category by itself. The absence of an imprint and colophon veils the fact that it was printed abroad for the sake of smuggling into England for a readership receptive to subversive Lutheran ideas. Although this book is commonly attributed to Jerome Barlow and William Roy, a pair of apostate friars, the revised STC assigns it to William Barlow, who later became Bishop of St. Asaph and, eventually, St. David’s after he recanted for publishing heretical tracts during the 1520s. The anonymity of this book was appropriate to an era when men and women died for articulating subversive opinions. The survival of single copies from each of the first two editions suggests either that authorities succeeded at inhibiting circulation of this book or that readers read copies to death. The appearance of three separate printings in Antwerp or Strasbourg during a period of two to three years (1528-30) makes it clear that this book was quite popular with English readers.

Regardless of whether Roy had a hand in the writing and publication of this book, the density of the citation of scriptural texts in the dedication to Master P. G. N. O. is in keeping with his collaboration with William Tyndale in the exilic production of the first English translation of the New Testament first in Cologne and then, after local authorities blocked printing, in Worms. The anticlericalism of these collaborators is mirrored not only in the dedication, but also in the woodcuts that Johann Schott positioned at the beginning and end of the Strasbourg edition. The bold portrayal of the coat of arms of Cardinal Wolsey on the title page undergoes mockery in a versified description of how the shield of the “proud cardinal” is “borne up between two angels of Satan” (A1v). On the last page of this book, the coat of arms of Pope Clement VII affords a focus for a virulently polemical conflation of this “son of an whore” with the tyrannous “murderer Antichrist” (H8v). The reader then encounters an extended satirical lamentation on the death of the Mass before the beginning of the dialogue between Watkyn and Jeffraye. The paratext that I have described provides a more or less realistic frame for the fiction at the center of this book. As Dr. Betteridge argues, the entertainment that it affords contributes to an implicit invitation for the reader to join in the production of meaning as a silent observer.

Printed on a single sheet of paper, The Parliament of Birds was much less expensive than Read Me and Be Not Wroth, for which the bookseller had to recover the cost of nine sheets of paper. Although the resemblance of Parliament to a chapbook gives it the appearance of very popular literature sold by itinerant chapmen, the Chaucerian associations of this dialogue and its concern with the right ordering of the commonwealth are sophisticated elements. Wynkyn de Worde printed and sold this book at the printing establishment that he operated at the sign of the Sun in Fleet Street. Located in close proximity to the Inns of the Court, he was in a good position to sell books to lawyers for whom the gathering of an avian Parliament to articulate complaints to a monarchical Eagle would have had a special resonance. After all, many lawyers served as members of the House of Commons. The right of complaint was grounded upon strong legal precedent at a time when the problem of royal counsel represented a central political issue. We encounter it in writings as various as More’s Utopia (1516) Skelton’s Magnificence (c. 1519), and Simon Fish’s Supplication for the Beggars (1529?). As Dr. Betteridge notes, the birds’ collective appeal for preservation of a well-ordered hierarchy of estates was anything but subversive. The ultimate call for orderliness and moderation in both politics and reading would have appealed to the conservatism of lawyers and other members of the establishment who opposed the imperiousness of Cardinal Wolsey, whom they mocked as a low-born butcher’s boy. The political conservatism of the Parliament is in keeping with de Worde’s earlier service to Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, from whom he received appointment variously as printer to the King’s mother or, following the death of Henry VII, grandmother.

At a Fleet Street printing house located close to the premises occupied Wynkyn de Worde, William Rastell printed A Letter of a Young Gentleman Names Master Germen Gardynare in the momentous year during which Reformation Parliament enacted a sweeping program of legislation including the Act of Supremacy that abrogated papal authority over the Church of England. The location of his enterprise at St. Bride’s Churchyard seems appropriate to his two-fold career as a printer. Other printers and booksellers occupied premises at this location, and its site was not far from Lincoln’s Inn, where Rastell studied, and the other Inns of the Court. During a confessionally ambiguous era, it would be inappropriate to call him a Catholic, despite his engagement in publishing writings by his uncle, Thomas More. Nevertheless, he closed down his printing operation in 1535, soon after the execution of his famous uncle for refusing to speak in support of the royal supremacy. Rastell emigrated to Louvain at the time of confessional upheaval during the reign of Edward VI, only to return to England after the Catholicization of England under Mary I. During her regime, he printed law books and the Works of Sir Thomas More . . . in the English Language (1557).

A Letter of a Young Man was one of the final books that Rastell printed before closing his printing establishment. Printing this octavo volume on five sheets of paper, he would have sold it at a point midway between the prices of The Parliament of Fowls and Read Me and Be not Wroth. Gardynare’s Letter mediates between the intellectual worlds of the literati and illiterati through its inclusion of both the Latin wording of Frith’s response and an English translation, through its marginal citation of patristic sources, and through its translation of patristic texts out of Greek and Latin. This book may give us pause as we ponder the confessional neutrality of the 1530s. England was not yet a Protestant country, but members of the establishment from Henry VIII downward espoused stridently anti-Lutheran sentiments. They infuse Gardynare’s account of the heresy examination of John Frith, who would later find a place among the heroic martyrs celebrated in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. The martyrologist’s transcriptions of heresy examinations from the vantage point of the victims stand in sharp contrast to Gardynare’s establishmentarian account of Frith’s experience. (Foxe’s 1573 edition of the collected English writings of Frith, William Tyndale, and Robert Barnes functions as a confessional antithesis to Rastell’s edition of Thomas More’s collected writings in the English language.) Of course, Frith’s fate was sealed by his failure to obey official promulgation of religious doctrine, regardless of how ambiguous it may have been.

Dr. Betteridge’s final selection is Richard Taverner’s translation of Proverbs or Adages With New Additions Gathered Out of the Chiliades of Erasmus. We are unsure whether Richard Bankes, who sold copies of this book at the sign of the White Hart on Fleet Street, functioned as its printer or publisher. Requiring ten and one-half sheets of paper, this octavo cost more than the other books. Its adaptation of Erasmus’s influential collection of Latin tags to the needs of English readers fits in well with the vernacularizing impulse that we witness in the Letter of Germen Gardynare. A one-time protégé of both Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, the latter of whom orchestrated the momentous legislative program of the Reformation Parliament, Taverner completed this translation in 1539, not long before Cromwell fell from royal favor and was executed. Although the translator underwent imprisonment in the Tower of London during the aftermath of his patron’s fall, he retained the office of Clerk of the Privy Seal and continued to receive patronage from Henry VIII. Despite Taverner’s association with evangelical ideas of the kind that Cromwell held, Proverbs or Adages typifies an ideologically neutral moment prior to the emergence of confessionally committed strands of Protestant and Catholic humanism. His distinctively Erasmian definition of true religion as a mean between radical and conservative extremes is in keeping with the Dutch scholar’s insistence upon evolutionary reform, rather than revolutionary change of the kind that Luther called for.

To my way of thinking, Dr. Betteridge’s article very helpfully anatomizes ways in which these four books employ entertaining and pleasurable fictions and rhetorical devices in order to construct meaning across a complicated ideological spectrum. In this, they typify ways in which Henrician reformers attempted to adapt existing literary and artistic forms in order to apply them to new uses. Despite the strident polemicism of Read Me and Be Not Wroth, which is most evident in its paratext, the entertaining dialogue at its core is built upon the premise that truth is at least nominally open-ended. The Parliament of Fowls breathes new life into a medieval genre in order to address pressing political concerns at a time when imperious Cardinal Wolsey had no idea that he was poised at the height of Fortune’s wheel. In framing A Letter of a Young Gentleman in the form of an epistolary fiction, Germen Gardiner provides raw material for readers to experience an apparently paradoxical intermingling of instruction and pleasure in the course of reading his grimly earnest account of the heresy examination of John Frith. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs offers similarly moments of intermingled horror and delight, not least among which are the quips and jokes through which martyrs in extremis retained the capacity to face down their persecutors. Encounters with Erasmian adages in the form of Taverner’s translation exposed readers with opportunities to derive instruction and experience pleasure in a way that valorized moderation at a time when the Act of Six Articles imposed harsh penalties on activities such as the reading of vernacular translations of the Bible. In itself, their infraction was ideologically neutral. After all thinkers as orthodox as Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros espoused the humanistic appeal to return ad fontes in order to render the Scriptures accessible to individuals incapable of reading learned languages.

Publisher: Pázmány University Electronic Press - Budapest, ISSN 1785-6515
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