Confessionalisation and English Reformation Literature

Written by Tom Betteridge

(Dr Thomas Betteridge is a Reader in English Renaissance Literature in the School of Humanities at Kingston University. He has published numerous articles and chapters in books on mid-Tudor history and literature. Dr Betteridge’s most recent publication is Literature and politics in the English Reformation (Manchester University Press: 2004) which is a study of the English Reformation as a poetic and political event; one in which hermeneutic debates could easily take a lethal turn; the boundary between heresy and orthodoxy was at once absolute and dangerously ambiguous; and the ground was mapped out for the political conflicts of the next hundred years. The texts that Dr Betteridge discusses in this study are an eclectic group unified by the extent to which they reflect key elements of the cultural history of the period 1510 – 1580, political, poetic and religious.)

She is but a chylde of age,
And yett is she bothe wyse and sage,
Of very beautiful faveoure.
Perfectly she doth represent,
The singular graces excellent,
Bothe of father and mother.
Howe be it all this is nott regardynge,
The carter of Yorcke is meddelynge,
Forto to diuorce theym a sonder.

Rede me and be nott wrothe For I saye no thinge but the truthe, William Roy and Jerome Barlowe, 1528.[1]

Rede me and be nott wrothe For I saye no thinge but the truthe is a vicious attack on Cardinal Wolsey (the carter of York), papistry and the mass. The bulk of this tract is made up of a dialogue between two servants, Watkyn and Jeffraye. During the course of their discussion Jeffraye accuses Wolsey of being the person responsible for sowing discord between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.[2] For Jeffraye the fact that Catherine had given birth to a child as wise and well favoured as Mary Tudor was proof in itself that the royal marriage was blessed. Rede me and be nott wrothe ends with Jeffraye and Watkyn discussing where they can go in order to escape papist persecution and live as true Christians. They end up agreeing upon Prague and, in the face of Watkyn’s scepticism, Constantinople. Jeffraye, however, reassures him that

I shall have theare as grett liberte,
As in wother places of christente,
The trueth of Christ to professe.
For he that will the trueth declare,
I dare saye moche better he weare,
To be with theym in hethennesse. (p.155)

Rede me and be nott wrotheis a ferociously polemical work. It is also a piece of literary fiction designed to entertain its readers. Jeffraye’s claim that it would be easier to live as a true Christian among heathens than in a Tudor England ‘ruled’ by Wolsey is clearly ironic. Rede me and be nott wrothe is not seriously advocating Constantinople as a place of refuge for English people fleeing papist persecution. The dialogue form of the text, its exaggeration, irony and wit are intended to make reading Rede me and be nott wrothe a pleasure and in the process to encourage the reader to accept the work’s polemical agenda. Readers of Rede me and be nott wrothe are invited to see themselves as the third party in the Watkyn’s and Jeffraye’s dialogue, unifying its two voices by taking on the role of a third engaged but silent participant in their discussion.

Rede me and be nott wrothe is an exemplary English Reformation text. Its argument is at once general, anti-papist, and historically specific, it lauds the marriage between Henry and Catherine of Aragon. At the same time it deploys the possibilities of print, for example the way the dialogue between Watkyn and Jeffraye is presented on the page without glosses or additional prose, in order to incite its reader to participate in its production of meaning. Rede me and be nott wrothe wants to be read actively but at the same time has a specific religious agenda to impart to its readers. It foregrounds the extent to which it is a work of fiction, for example with an elaborate prefatory play on the question of authorship, while clearly not intending its fictionality to in any way undermine its anti-papal and anti-mass arguments. Rede me and be nott wrothe has a clear polemical religious agenda, but this does not prevent it being in places witty and amusing. Its authors intended it to inform, persuade, and please its readers. Like the vast bulk of English Reformation writing Rede me and be nott wrothe is mass of contradictions: a fictional text that says nothing but the truth; polemical poetry that tries to ignore its poetic status; a dialogue between two voices with only one message; a text written to support royal power that invites its readers to critically examine the actions of the king; and a work advocating reform of the English Church which concludes by advertising the merits of Constantinople as a safe place to practice the truth of Christ’s teaching.

Rede me and be nott wrotheis a Protestant text but it was written and read when English Protestantism was in its infancy. Alec Ryrie, in his authoritative study of the early English Reformation The Gospel and Henry VIII: Evangelicals in the Early English Reformation, argues that before 1547 religious identities and conflicts in Tudor England were marked by ambiguity.[3] In these terms it is essential when studying English Reformation literature to remember that the emergence of Protestantism and Catholicism as coherent and relatively homogenous religious movements was the result and not the cause of the Reformation; that they emerged as solutions to pervasive religious and ideology conflict.[4] Catholicism and Protestantism as confessional identities solved the crisis of religious authority that was the backdrop to the reformation by providing a rationale and framework for confessionalisation.[5] Indeed this point is particularly important in relation to the English Reformation because, not only is there plenty of evidence of the desire to confessionalise prior to the onset of the Reformation, for example in the up-surge in the persecution of the Lollards, but also the situation that existed under Henry VIII was, in a European context, extremely atypical. Henry’s church was a confessional church without a confession, except the shifting sands of his personal beliefs.[6] It was this that created the specifically Henrician approach to confessionalisation with its emphasis on obedience above all other considerations.[7] After Henry’s death one sees the emergence of genuinely confessional writing during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary.[8] This does not mean that one cannot describe a work like Rede me and be nott wrothe as a piece of Protestant writing. Indeed in many ways it would be bizarre to question its Protestantism. What it does suggest is that one needs to see confessionalisation, and its production of confessional identities, as the key element in the cultural history of Tudor England. Rede me and be nott wrothe embodies a confessional poetics, one of whose results was the emergence of the English Protestant literary culture that flowered during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth.

This article is in four parts. The first three sections are case studies which examine in detail three Henrician works, The Parliament of Birds, A letter of a younge gentleman named mayster Germen Gardynare and Richard Taverner’s version of Erasmus’ Proverbs. The final section discusses the idea of confessionalisation as a concept and suggests in very broad terms its importance to modern understandings of sixteenth-century English literature and culture. As a whole the article was conceived as a starting point for a discussion of the importance of confessionalisation as a concept to the study of English Reformation literature.

Before embarking on the first of my case studies it is, however, important briefly to discuss the meaning of the term confessionalisation which as a concept has been developed over the last ten years by a number of historians interested in the German Reformation. In very broad terms it refers to the process of creating and sustaining religious confessions as organized public churches. In particular, Wolfgang Reinhard and Heinz Schilling have used the idea of confessionalisation to move beyond an understanding of the European Reformation as a conflict between Protestants and Catholics and have instead stressed the continuities between the various European reformations: German, Spanish, French and English. Schilling writes:

I have drawn a conclusion regarding terminology from the concept of confessionalisation: instead of the Counter Reformation, Lutheran Orthodoxy, and the “Second Reformation”, we should speak of “Catholic confessionalisation”, “Lutheran confessionalisation”, and “Reformed or Calvinist confessionalisation”. By using linguistic parallel terminology it becomes clearer that these are three processes running parallel with each other and that the concept of confessionalisation includes an over-arching political, social, and cultural change. [9]

Schilling’s argument has a number of radical implications. It suggests that the European Reformation was a product of a process of confessionalisation and that therefore the emergence of competing Christian confessional identities, primarily Catholic and Protestant, was an effect and not a cause of religious change during the sixteenth century. The implication of this is that aspects of early modern religion that have traditionally be seen as elements of competing denominations should instead be viewed as products of Catholicism’s and Protestantism’s shared confessional basis. [10] This argument is particularly important as regards the English Reformation in relation to mid-Tudor politics and literature.

1. The Parliament of the Birds and pre-Reformation Politics.

The Parliament of Birdsis an obscure early Tudor poem printed c.1520.[11] Its title suggests that it is modelled on Chaucer’s far more famous work, The Parliament of Fowls; a dream vision in which a great flock of birds debate love in its various forms, philosophical, social and poetic. The Parliament of Birds is, however, a very different poem. Its main, indeed only, topic is politics.[12] In Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls the birds meet because it is spring time and they need to choose their mates. It is Nature that summons the fowl’s parliament and presides over it:

The noble emperesse [Nature], ful of grace,
Bad every foul to take his owne place,
As they were woned alwey fro yer to yeere,
Seynt Valentynes day, to stonden there.[13]

The Parliament of Birdsmeets to hear the complaints of the birds against the pride of the Hawk. The poem opens with a bald statement of political intent:

This is the parlyament of the byrdes
For hye and lowe and them amyddes,
To ordayne a meane: how it is best
To keepe among them peace and rest,
For muche noyse is on euery side
Agaynst the hauke so full of pride.
Therfore they shall in bylles brynge
Theyr complaints to the egle, theyr kyng;
And by the kynge in parliament
Shall be sette in lawful iudgement. (p. 59)

There is nothing natural about The Parliament of the Birds. Its concerns are not poetic or philosophical. It is a political text concerned above all with the fair distribution of power and authority within the commonwealth.

The political creed expressed in The Parliament of Birds is not radical. It is based on the idea that that a commonwealth is a communal body in which everyone has a place, albeit within a rigidly hierarchical order. Within this commonwealth different birds have their own roles to play, but they also have the right to complain when the social order has been subverted by one of their number. This right of complaint is the first specific political issue that The Parliament of Birds addresses. This is because the Hawk, whose pride has disputed the mean of the commonwealth, questions whether such a right exists:

The sayd the sterlynge: “Verament,
Who sayth soth shal be shent;
No man maye now speke of trouthe
But his heed be broke, and that is routhe”.

The hawke swore by his heed of graye:
“All soothes be not for to saye:
It is better some be lefte by reason,
Than trouthe to be spoken out of season.” (p. 60)

The Hawk expresses here a common, indeed proverbial, attitude - that each truth has its own season. The birds, however, reject this argument. Indeed the poem could not but refuse the Hawk’s reasoning since its purpose is to speak the truth of the existing political situation without regard to the season. The Parliament of Birds argues that the right of complaint is an absolute one. The voices of every bird, high, low and middling, should be heard by the Eagle so that he can pursue the ‘mean’ which will restore harmony to the commonwealth.

The political argument of The Parliament of Birds is reinforced by the way it constructs its relation to its reader. The poem’s lack of a narrator, the way in which the debate between the birds is presented as if spoken by its participants with little third party comment, and the text’s consistent use of popular sayings all encourage the reader to imagine themselves as a member of the bird’s parliament. Reading The Parliament of Birds is constructed by the work as a political act in itself since by doing so the reader accepts the poem’s basic premise that the freedom of a commonwealth’s members to speak the truth in public is fundamental to the maintenance of its ‘mean’. The poem ends by stressing its own fictionality but also creating a tension between two different kinds of readers:

Thoughe thou be as hasty as a wype
And thy fethers flyght-rype
Loke they fethers and wrytyng bedene [agree] –
What they saye and what they mene.
For here is none other thynge
But fowles, fethers, and wrytyng:
Thus endeth the byrdes parlyment
By theyr kynges commaundement. (p. 68)

The Parliament of Birdsconcludes by warning an imagined reader against reading too quickly. This is partly because readers need to examine whether their own ‘feathers’ and ‘writings’ agree but more importantly they need to read slowly; otherwise in their haste they may forget that the poem is nothing but ‘fowles, fethers and wrytyng’. The Parliament of Birds ends by relating its political agenda to its status as a poetic text. To read this poem with haste would be to miss its meaning and to instead impose one’s will on to the text; to make it mean what one wants. Instead The Parliament of Birds valorises reading as a form of political participation in which the reader shares with the text in the production of meaning. In particular, the poem incites its readers to identify themselves with the Eagle – the calm centre of the bird’s debate, suspending judgement until all the birds have had their say and the poem ends

The Parliament of Birdsmay be a coded attack on Wolsey. It certainly would make sense if it was aimed at the same target as John Skelton’s Speke Parott.[14] It is also possible that The Parliament of Birds forms part of a more general critique of Henrician kinship that emerged during the 1520s.[15] Placing the poem within one of these contexts gives the poem’s politics a useful degree of historical specificity. At the beginning of the bird’s debate, however, a rather different politics is briefly mentioned, before being swiftly placed beyond the poem’s scope:

The great grype was the fyrst that spake,
And sayd, “Owne is owne, who can it take.
For thyne and myne make much debate
Wyth great and small in euery estate.”

“I synge,” sayd the cuckowe, “euer one song,
That the weake taketh euer the wrong,
For he that hath wyth vs most myght
Taketh his wyll, as reason is ryght.” (p. 59)

In these verses the Cuckoo answers the Vulture’s brutal claim that greed is the basic principle of the commonwealth by suggesting that as fundamental as this are injustice and oppression. The Cuckoo’s words echo those of John Ball, one of the leaders of the Peasant’s Revolt 1381, in their criticism of a world in which will and might take precedence over reason and right.[16] The other birds, however, are not interested in the Cuckoo’s song. It was proverbial wisdom in the sixteenth century that the cuckoo could only sing one song, over and over again, monotonously. Was there any point including the Cuckoo’s song in the deliberations of the Bird’s Parliament given that, as the Falcon points out, a bird with ‘… no song but one, What he hath song his wytte is gone’ (p. 59). The Cuckoo’s song is effectively excluded from the Parliament’s discussions on aesthetic and utilitarian grounds – it is boring and adds nothing purposeful to the bird’s debate. This argument, however, does not address its basic truth. The Cuckoo’s song is monotonous and endless since its complaint is equally monotonous – that oppression and inequality are the monotonous truths of history.[17] The way in which the Cuckoo’s song of injustice is only heard in The Parliament of Birds for the moment it takes the Falcon to dismiss it, can be read as a metaphor for the place of its truth in Tudor culture. Its refrain, that the weak are always wronged when might comes before right, echoes as an underlying theme within Tudor culture; a cadence whose beat can be heard at moments of social conflict and ideological crisis.[18]

2. Confessional writing.

In 1534 Germen Gardynare, probably Gardiner, was credited as the author of a work entitled, A letter of a younge gentleman named mayster Germen Gardynare, wryten to a frend of his, wheron men may se the demeanour [and] heresy of John Fryth late burned.[19] This is a curious text. It appears to be a relatively rare example of an account of an examination written from the perspective of the authorities, or at least someone in sympathy with them. It mocks John Frith as an arrogant young man incapable of understanding the most obvious points of Christian teaching.[20] Gardynare comments that ‘… it were not possible for all the doctors that be and haue ben to wryte so playn as to make Firth call them playne’ (sig. D5v). Later Gardynare reports that Frith refused to answer a question relating to the role of the church in defining heresy telling his inquisitors ‘… he wolde not answere directely, but sayde take me as you wyll’. Gardynare’s response to this attempt to evade the question was to remind Firth that ’… we must order our wyll iff we wold do well’ (sig. E5r). A letter of a younge gentleman presents Frith in an unflattering light as an arrogant young man who, despite his youth and lack of learning, is prepared to argue over serious matters of religion that he does not properly understand. A letter of a younge gentleman is also, however, surprisingly critical of the person it was allegedly sent to, Gardynare’s unnamed Friend. This person is represented as someone in authority, holding office in Cambridge and taking part in the examination of suspected heretics. The obvious candidate for the letter’s addressee would therefore seem to be Germain Gardiner’s uncle, the bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner. However the letter implies that the person it is addressed to took a very personal interest in the examination of heretics. This perhaps suggests that readers of A letter of a younge gentleman were meant to assume that Gardynare’s Friend was Sir Thomas More.[21] Whoever the letter was allegedly addressed to in it Gardynare speculates about the effect hearing Frith’s heretical views on the mass will have upon them.

Me thynke I se hereat your ioyntes tremble, your eyes stare, your heares stert up, and all the behauour of your body alter, abhorynge these deuelyshe wordes of thys cursed wretche. But who can let the deuyll to be lyke hym selfe. (sigs. A3v-A5r)

Gardynare’s depiction of the likely response of his Friend, and by implication his readers, to Frith’s heresy serves to remind one that the title of this tract included a promise that it would display the ‘…demeanour [and] heresy of John Fryth’. It is how Frith behaved during his examination at least as much as his actual views that Gardynare wishes to bring to his reader’s attention.[22] The subtext of A letter of a younge gentleman is the comforting one that it is possible to tell if someone is a heretic by their demeanour. However the other implication of Gardynare’s work is that heresy can produce a violent disordered response even in the most orthodox person.[23]

A letter of a younge gentlemanis at one level an unusual English Reformation work. However at another level it is entirely typical. Its representation of the process of inquisition is a mirror image of the far more numerous Protestant accounts of examinations and trials. In the latter it is the inquisitors that are unreasonable, cannot sustain a coherent argument and whose bodies announce the truth of their violent disordered natures. In A letter of a younge gentleman it is Frith’s inner disorder that is announced unwittingly by his body. When confronted by a passage from saint Hilary that he cannot answer, he ‘… began as yt had ben in a tragedye, to ruffle and crye why had not the byshoppe told hym this …’ (sig. D3r). It is not only, however, the depiction of Frith in this text that is representative of English Reformation literature. The way that A letter of a younge gentleman asks to be read is also typical of much of the writing produced between 1530 and 1580. Gardynare’s work has a clear polemical agenda which is to incite the reader to position themselves alongside those examining Frith. At the same time A letter of a younge gentleman’s slightly mocking construction of the Friend to whom it is allegedly addressed suggests that they are not an appropriate model for the reader to aspire to. Gardynare’s work seeks to position its readers in the examination room between the heretical Frith, the easily seduced Friend who appears not to be prepared to play a full part in the struggle against heresy and those actually examining Firth, including Gardynare himself.[24] It consistently incites the reader to side with the examiners against Firth and in comparison with the absent Friend.

A letter of a younge gentlemanpresents itself to the reader as a letter and in the process claims to be factual. In particular, it deploys the language of confessionalisation in order to write over its fictionality. Gardynare’s work equates a subjectivity based on reason, coherence and order with its own religious position while at the same time representing its opponents, like Frith, as unreasonable disordered people, who, when faced with an argument they cannot answer, behave like tragic actors, crying and ranting.[25] It argues that those who fail to embrace its own specific religious position are themselves in danger of being seduced by heresy. In particular, readers who fail to properly separate the work’s fictional elements from its factual presentation of Firth’s examination open themselves up to the seductive charms of heretics like Frith, and those of the text itself. Gardynare’s work illustrates a tension produced by confessionalisation within English Reformation writing between religious polemic and pleasure. Reading A letter of a younge gentleman is meant to be instructive and pleasurable. The rules of the market place were not suspended for religious writing. As a commodity A letter of a younge gentleman offered its readers not only religious polemic but also the frisson of experiencing the process of examination. Those who brought it got the gothic excitement and voyeuristic thrill of owning a text that promised to display the notorious heretic Frith and the truth about his shocking heresy. These readerly pleasures, however, ultimately endanger the tract’s polemical agenda since they relate to the performative world of Firth and heresy. A letter of a younge gentleman presents its readers with the stark choice of aligning themselves with its doctrinal position or remaining in a state of lukewarm orthodoxy and therefore, like the Friend, holding a dangerously naďve view as regards the seductive nature of heresy – and the pleasures of the text.

3. Anti-confessional writing.

In 1539 Richard Taverner published Proverbs or adagies with newe addicions gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus. Taverner was a client of Thomas Cromwell and produced a number of works in the service of his patron. Taverner’s Proverbs emphasise above all the importance of order and proportion in religion and society as a whole. In this work there is a constant emphasis on the maintenance of the social hierarchy. Taverner gives the proverb, ‘Quam quisque norit artem in hac se exerceat (let every man exercise hym selfe in the facultie that he knoweth)’ a specifically Henrician spin by relating it directly to the question of biblical interpretation:

Let them iudge of coutroueries in the christian religion, that be lerned in the same / and not euery Jacke plowman.[26]

This Henrician twist is taken even further with Taverner’s gloss on the proverb ‘Ne quid nimis’ (nothing to muche). Taverner writes:

Measure no doute is an high treasure. Some cannot do but they ouer do, ether in the redresse of the abuses in the church they wyll runne to farre and quyte and cleane take away al honest ceremonies, tradicions, and lawes, or els in the mayntenynge of that which is honeste, they woll wythout choyse styffely defende yea and kepe styll in theyr churches al customes, ceremonies, and traditions be they neuer so detestably abused and gone from the fyrst institucion. (sig. C4v)

Taverner defines the true church, and by implication the Henrician one, as based on a mean between fanatical reformers and dogmatic conservatives. The Proverbs concludes with a discussion of the proverb ‘Panemne frangito (breake not bread) which Taverner uses in order to celebrate Christian friendship and to criticise the way in which the Lord’s Supper has become a bone of contention. He writes:

… yearlye by thys solemne sacrament we be incorporate in Christ, we be partakers of his body, we eate that mistical bread, This in outwarde apparaunce is a symbole and argument of an excedyng unitie and brennyng charitie. But inwardly very Judases and outwardly to, we lyft up our heles, we kyck, we spurne, ayenste Christe. Wherfore to returne to my purpose we be breakers and not eaters or (to speake more truly) we be unworthy eters of this mystical breade not discernynge the lordes bodye. (sig. H2v)

This passage enacts the pursuit of the mean that Taverner earlier lauded. It speaks of the mystical body of Christ and argues that Christians are united in charity through participating in the sacrament. The emphasis on order and proportion that is a marked feature of Taverner’s work is brought to a conclusion in this discussion of Christian amicitia and the unifying function of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

Taverner’s use of this proverb to end his work can be seen as a reflection of the effect of confessionalisation on humanism.[27] His discussion on this proverb draws directly from Erasmus’ introduction to the 1508 edition of his Adages. Only in this text Erasmus stresses the ‘ocean of philosophy’ opened up by the study of proverbs.[28] In particular, Erasmus’ intention in this Introduction is to imagine a form of proverbial wisdom, an ethics of knowledge, based on the mutual, communal and dialogic production of wisdom through the study and exchange of proverbs. Taverner’s intentions at the end of his Proverbs are to close down debate. During the Henrican Reformation, however, the last thing anyone needed was an ocean of knowledge unless one’s berth in the good ship Obedience was firmly secured – which in the shifting world of Henry’s Royal Supremacy it never could be.

In Taverner’s Proverbs the reader is constantly invited to apply Latin proverbs to their daily lives. But this move is not free from constraint. The production of meaning in the Proverbs, the move from Latin, to translations, to gloss, invariably leads to a knowledge that is above all magisterial; that confirms the naturalness of the existing social order. In the field of religion the figures that threaten this order are represented as fanatical reformers, doctrinal conservatives or unruly commoners like Jack Plowman.[29] Religion in the Proverbs is a site for the articulation of potential religious discord and social disorder – and its solution. Social antagonism can be solved, Jack Plowman kept in his place, if the pursuit of measure or mean is the guiding principle of the church and in a more general sense society as a whole. The Proverbs’ emphasis on the need for order is coupled with a construction of its readers as people whose ability to cross cultural and social boundaries in the production of knowledge qualifies them to define society’s ‘mean’. As each proverb is translated and expanded the reader, by participating in this process, assumes a magisterial position - the right to sit above the field of the social and to see it as the raw material from which meaning can be produced. [30]

A letter of a younge gentlemanand the Proverbs are very different works. The former is a call to arms, an incitement to its readers to embrace its specific religious position, to participate in the confessionalization of Tudor society, to get off the fence and join the struggle against heresy. The Proverbs celebrates moderation and measure above all. It advocates a middle way as a good in itself and constructs its opponents as religious fanatics, stiff pedants or uppity ploughmen. In Taverner’s work dividing society into three groups, angels, devils and the lukewarm, would be to transgress the bounds of Christian friendship and social measure. This is not to suggest that he was himself lukewarm when it came to matters of religion.[31] In the Proverbs, however, Taverner articulates an attitude to the process of confessionalisation, the divisive pursuit of religious orthodoxy based upon the division of society into the saved, damned and lukewarm, as being in itself a key cause of social conflict. For godly writers like Gardynare this was the point. Conflict was essential to purge the country of heresy and protect the mass of people from its pernicious influence. A letter of a younge gentleman embraces the divisions rejected by the Proverbs. The differences between these texts are reflected both at the level of content and form. Gardynare’s work invites its readers to read it through lenses tinted by its own confessional bias; to experience the production of meaning in terms of a choice between the truth, the Friend’s lukewarm absence, and the heresy of Frith. Taverner’s work, however, consistently suggests that the truth is located in the mean or middle. Its form, a collection of in some ways unconnected scraps of knowledge, creates an experience of reading in which meaning is produced in an episodic or partial way. What gives Taverner’s text its unity are its magisterial and Henrician assumptions – its construction of the process of reading as one in which the reader assumes a privileged position in terms of ordering the work’s meaning and its advocacy of a quietist attitude towards religious, and indeed intellectual, dispute.

4. English Reformation literature and confessionalisation

The differences between A letter of a younge gentleman and the Proverbs reflect one of the basic conflicts within Tudor culture between 1510 and 1580 between those who embraced the process of confessionalisation and those who rejected it. This division had significant implications for Tudor politics. The Parliament of Birds expresses a number of commonplaces of Tudor political thought; the right of complaint, the desirability of the monarch to listening to the voices of the entire commonwealth and pursuit of ‘mean’ or order as the purpose of the polity. In particular, The Parliament of Birds is concerned with the proper circulation of counsel within the polity. Its target, the Hawk, not only disputes the other bird’s right of complaint but more importantly, as the other bird’s argue, his excessive pride has endangered the political order by corrupting and distorting the circulation of counsel within the polity. Counsel was the central concept of Tudor political thought. But nothing about it was coherent or fixed. Apart from a general agreement that it was desirable in itself there was no agreement over its status, scope or boundaries. This lack of agreement, however, was precisely what made it a productive category for Tudor writers. John Guy comments that:

Counsel’ was neither in itself a neutral concept nor even one suited intrinsically to the orderly conduct of politics. It subsumed competing moral and political values which stimulated at best intellectual debate, at worst political ideology. The politics of ‘counsel’ were in this sense the unceasing politics of discourse. [32]

Counsel in sixteenth-century English political writing is an empty signifier – a word whose lack of a fixed meaning provided an essential basis for Tudor political praxis.[33] In The Parliament of Birds the free circulation of counsel is depicted as a good in itself that would ensure the order and health of the commonwealth. In the process of making this argument, however, in a move typical of Tudor political writing, this poem elides the relationship between counsel and policy. In The Parliament of Birds the impression is created that the Eagle’s preparedness to hear the complaints of the other birds against the Hawk is in itself a reforming act, but in the world of practical Tudor politics the move from the monarch hearing counsel and then acting upon it was the problem. How did one make the monarch accept advice? Was it possible to force the ruler to be counselled? The construction of counsel in The Parliament of Birds also places beyond its bounds its own validating norms, in particular in terms of the exclusion of the Cuckoo’s song of social oppression and inequality. The Parliament of Birds can be read as exemplary in terms of Tudor political writing. Its politics, the emphasis on counsel, social order, the pursuit of an ill-defined ‘mean’ as the purpose of political debate and its silencing of the Cuckoo’s song, are all normative in terms of Tudor political praxis.

It is in relation to these norms that the differences between the views expressed in A letter of a younge gentleman and the Proverbs become significant within the political sphere. Taverner’s emphasis on moderation fits perfectly with the political agenda of The Parliament of Birds. But a politics based on the pursuit of an ill-defined mean is limiting in terms of scope and scale. Deploying the concept of confessionalisation within the context of the debate over counsel created a number of political possibilities. In particular the discourse of confessionalisation allowed a collapse of political agency with religious identity in way that could be deployed to increase the efficiency and power of the polity.[34] Michael Braddick comments:

The state is not a purely institutional phenomenon … The state creates and is created by a degree of normative consensus and organizational co-ordination.[35]

Confessionalisation, both in terms of its creation of true and false religious identities and the process of examination and inquisition that invariably accompanied it, had the potential to increase the power of early modern governments and ruling elites. It also led to the creation of new and productive ways of explaining social and political conflict, in particular in terms of the failure of counsel, through the development of popery and heresy as political concepts.[36] At the same time confessionalisation could also place new and radical pressures on Tudor political norms. In particular, the confessionalisation of counsel created the possibility that voices outside the political nation could be legitimatised on the basis of their confessional purity.[37] Would a godly Cuckoo have been so easy to silence?[38] Also once politics was confessionalised the possibility existed of judging a monarch against confessional standards.[39] The logic of confessionalisation as articulated in works like A letter of a younge gentleman was that a monarch who failed to identify with its religious agenda would be at best naďve in terms of the dangers of heresy, at worse a heretic themselves. Could, or perhaps even more pertinently should, a ruler who failed to see the truth of Firth’s heresy – indeed who shared his heretical views – be legitimate in terms of the religious identity valorized in Gardynare’s work? [40]


Gerald Strauss has suggested that, ‘Ideologically, the Reformation was first and foremost an exaltation of authorized texts’.[41] It would, however, be more accurate to argue that a key element of the European Reformation was a desire to authorize texts.[42] Confessionalisation addressed perfectly the fears of the litterati over the unregulated circulation of knowledge, particularly in the form of printed texts, by providing a perfect rationale for its regulation. It legitimated the control of all aspects of early modern culture by justifying the attempt to force language, popular culture and even selfhood into confessional moulds.[43] In particular, confessionalisation embodied a specific model of selfhood based upon the struggle to achieve confessional purity and its poetics consistently valorised the plain simple truth of the Word of God against the dangers of textual play and linguistic ambiguity. In the past studies of mid-Tudor literature tended to collapse these aspects of confessionalisation into English Protestant culture. This is, however, simply a product of the eventual success of Protestantism in England during the sixteenth century. In the work of Miles Hogarde one can see a Catholic sensibility being developed that in the work of later Catholic writers, for example Robert Southwell, contains all the markers of confessional ‘Protestant’ writing.[44]

Confessionalization as a process pre-dated the advent of the Reformation in England. It is evident in the early Henrician attacks on Lollardy and was a part of an early Tudor clericalist reform programme that can be seen in the writings as diverse as Bishop John Alcock’s sermons and Edmund Dudley’s The Tree of Commonwealth.[45] The Henrician Reformation created a complicated situation in which the process of confessionalisation was embraced but without any proper confessions. Injunctions, examinations and statements of doctrinal orthodoxy were established parts of Henrician government but the confession they were designed to enforce was terrifying vague to all but the King himself. To be faithful to the Royal Supremacy and the Henrician Reformation one had to make sure that there was no gap between one’s beliefs and those of Henry, while never being quite sure what Henry would publicly claim to believe from one month to the next. It is this situation that produces the tortured poetry of writers like Sir Thomas Wyatt whose narrators exist in a world drenched with the power of confessionalisation but lacking the ability to embrace a specific confessional identity as a positive meaningful choice. With the advent of the confessionalised regimes of Edward VI and Mary one can start in confidence talking about English Protestantism and Catholicism. In the writing of these reigns one can see the emergence of specifically Catholic and Protestant poetic models. Early Elizabethan culture reflects the trauma of the mid-Tudor period, the persecutions of Mary’s reign but also magisterial Protestant horror at the breakdown of order in 1549. After 1558, reformation, the defining commitment of the government to the imposition of one particular confession upon the country, was effectively abandoned with the result that the process of confessionalization was slowed down almost to a standstill – despite the best efforts of godly activists, Puritans and Jesuits, to give it a kick start.[46] The Elizabethan Church was unambiguously Protestant but every parish had to buy a copy of a work written by the leading anti-confessional Christian writer of the sixteenth century: Erasmus’ Paraphrase of the New Testament.[47]

Confessionalisation operated throughout the sixteenth century to drown out the Cuckoo’s song. It provided the noise, the ideological framework, that allowed Tudor culture to finesse the cause of social antagonism and conflict. Confessionalisation, the production of Protestantism and Catholicism as confessional identities, explained political and religious conflict and in the process elided the real causes of social tension in sixteenth-century England – oppression and poverty, the unequal distribution of wealth, power and authority – the harsh boring banal notes of the Cuckoo’s song.


[1] Jerome Barlowe and William Roy, Rede me and be nott wrothe, For I saye no thing but truthe, 1528, STC 21427, ed. Douglas H. Parker, (Toronto: 1992), p. 82. For the authorship and title of this work see Parker’s Introduction to this volume.

[2] Rede me and be nott wrothe’s position on the royal divorce may appear incongruous given its violently anti-papist nature, however, this combination was repeated in the work of William Tyndale arguably the leading English Protestant of the 1520s and 30s. See William Tyndale, The Practice of Prelates, 1530, STC 24465, in Expositions and Notes, ed. Henry Walter, (Cambridge: 1849), pp. 237-344, pp. 331-334.

[3] See Alec Ryrie, The Gospel and Henry VIII: Evangelicals in the Early English Reformation, (Cambridge: 2004), p. xvi.

[4] In the introduction to his recent study, Literature, Politics and National Identity: Reformation to Renaissance (Cambridge: 1994), Andrew Hadfield makes a number of highly pertinent comments concerning some of the traditional outlines of Tudor literary history. In particular, he criticizes the way in which modern literary criticism has often approached mid-Tudor writing through the prism of a coherent existing Protestantism.

[5] See Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, (Oxford: 1993), p. 34-37.

[6] See G.W. Bernard, ‘The making of religious policy, 1533-46’, Historical Journal, 41 (1998), pp. 321-349.

[7] See Richard Rex, ‘The Crisis of Obedience: God’s Word and Henry’s Reformation’, Historical Journal, 39 (1996), pp. 863-894.

[8] It is this literature that John King brilliantly discusses in his work English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition, (Princeton: 1982).

[9] Heinz Schilling Religion, Political Culture and the Emergence of Early Modern Society, (Leiden: 1992), p. 209-210.

[10] Reinhard argues that confessionalisation, ‘the establishment of pure doctrine and its handy formulation in a confession of faith, which could be used to measure everybody’s orthodoxy’, took place right across Western Europe during the period 1530-80. He goes on to suggest that, despite the different confessions being produced, Lutheran, Catholic and Calvinist, the effects of confessionalisation were fundamentally the same across Europe. See Wolfgang Reinhard, ‘Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and the Early Modern State: A Reassessment’, The Catholic Historical Review, 75, (1989), pp. 383-404, p. 391.

[11] The Parliament of Birds, c.1520, STC 19303.7, reprinted in Two early Renaissance bird poems, ed. Malcolm Andrew, (London: 1984), pp. 57-68.

[12] The use of beast fables for political ends is discussed in Annabel Patterson, Fables of Power: Aesopian Writing and Political History, (Durham NC: 1991).

[13] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parliament of Fowls, in The Riverside Chaucer, General Editor Larry D.Benson, (Oxford: 1987), lines 319-322

[14] See John Skelton, The Complete English Poems, ed. John Scattergood, (London: 1983), p. 453.

[15] See Peter Herman’s discussion of John Rastells’ Pastyme of the People 1529. Herman suggests that in this work Rastell constructs Parliament as a restraining force of reason in opposition to the king’s will. Peter C. Herman, ‘Rastell’s Pastyme of People: Monarchy and the Law in Early Modern Historiography’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 30 (2000), pp. 275-308.

[16] See John Ball, ‘Letters’ in The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, ed. R.B. Dobson, (London: 1983), pp. 380-383.

[17] In The Illusions of Postmodernism (Oxford: 1996), Terry Eagleton comments: “What strikes a socialist most forcibly about history to date is that it has displayed a most remarkable consistency-namely, the stubbornly persisting realities of wretchedness and exploitation” (p. 51).

[18] This idea is a reworking of Walter Benjamin’s argument that ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’. There is not a single product of Tudor culture, no poem, prayer book or play, whose beauty is not compromised by the echo of the Cuckoo’s monotonous song. See Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations, ed. and intro. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, (London: 1973), pp. 245-255, p. 248.

[19] Germen Gardynare, A letter of a younge gentleman named mayster Germen Gardynare, wryten to a frend of his, wheron men may se the demeanour [ and ] heresy of John Fryth late burned …, 1534, STC 11594.

[20] John Frith was an early English Protestant. A colleague of Tyndale’s he was tried and executed in London in 1533. For the details of Frith’s life see A.G. Dickens, The English Reformation (2nd ed. London: 1989), p. 101.

[21] Certainly one can argue that A letter of a younge gentleman has generic similarities with the Dialogue concerning heresies. At the same time the depiction of the Friend as a lukewarm participant in the struggle against heresy would seem to exclude More as a possible candidate.

[22] Frith’s demeanour is also at the center of John Foxe’s account of him in Acts and Monuments. Foxe presents him as a model of Christian humility and decorum. See John Foxe, The Ecclesiastical History, Contaynyng the Actes and Monumentes of Thynges passed in euery Kynges tyme in this realme . . ., (London: 1570), STC 11223, p. 1176.

[23] It is possible that in this passage Gardynare is refuting the representation of the Lollard William Thorpe’s clerical interrogators, particularly archbishop Arundel, as violent disordered bullies by suggesting that their behaviour was a product of the heresy they were forced to hear. See William Thorpe, 'The Testimony of William Thorpe', 1530?, STC 24045, in Two Wycliffite Texts, ed. Anne Hudson, EETS os 301, (Oxford: 1993).

[24] The failure of the friend to hunt heresy, and indeed to even spot it, is eluded to a number of times during Gardynare’s text. Commenting on the company that Frith kept Gardynare writes that it included ‘… wyllyam Tyndale, George Joy’. He goes on to speculate that his frend will surely sigh at the name of Joy ‘… seeing your self to haue ben so deluded with the hope whych ones ye conceyued of hym’ (sig. A3r).

[25] Étienne Balibar has argued that there is a connection between violence and the emergence of two extreme and equally impossible models of subjectivity, a single, fixed, exclusive identity and one marked by plurality, ambiguity and pleasure; between being absolutely one and no one. He writes: “we can … hypothesize that certain situations of violence with which we are faced occur not simply when individuals or groups are carried towards one of these extremes, but when these respective impossibilities meet, when individuals or groups seek a way out in a violent oscillation from one pole to the other.” See Étienne Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene, trans. Christine Jones, James Swenson and Chris Turner, (London: 2002), p. 29. Confessionalisation in an English context constantly staged this conflict demanding that people live their religious identities as fixed and closed, as Protestants or Catholics, in order to avoid the danger of slipping back into their unfixed, floating, pre-confessional selves, papist or heretic.

[26] Richard Taverner, Proverbs or adagies with newe addicions gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus, (London: 1539), STC 10437, sigs. E1r-v.

[27] See Erika Rummel, The Confessionalisation of Humanism in Reformation Germany, (Oxford: 2000).

[28] Erasmus, Adages, selected by William Baker, (Toronto: 2001), p. 14.

[29] Taverner’s suggestion that the ploughman should talk of his plough at first sight seems to place him in complete opposition to William Tyndale and other English Protestants who made much of their desire to open scripture up to everyone, allegedly particularly to ploughmen. However what links Tyndale and Taverner is a dismissal of the ploughman’s own song as valueless.

[30] On the place of proverbs in humanist discourse see Mary Thomas Crane, Framing Authority: Sayings, Self and Society in Sixteenth-Century England, (Princeton NY: 1993).

[31] This would be a problematic judgment to make of a man who produced The Epistles and Gospelles wyth a brief Postil upon the same which Eamon Duffy has described as an emphatically reforming work. See Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, (New Haven: 1992), p. 425. In his Preface to this text, however, Taverner does insist that it is a moderate work that carefully articulates a mean between religious reformers and conservatives. For example on the key question of justification by faith Taverner writes: “Fayth is here not so nakedly extolled, but that good works also be necessarily requered to be in a christen man. Neyther yet be good workes here in suche sort magnified that fayth whiche ought to be the foundacion of the christen religion is defrauded of her due place.” See Richard Taverner, The Epistles and Gospelles wyth a brief Postil upon the same …, 1540, STC 2968, no pag. [sig. *3r-v]

[32] John Guy, 'The rhetoric of counsel in early modern England', in Tudor Political Culture, ed. Dale Hoak, (Cambridge: 1995), pp. 292-310, p. 293.

[33] For a discussion of the importance of empty signifiers to politics see Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s), (London: 1996).

[34] It is a misnomer to refer to the Tudor state since such a thing can hardly be said to exist in any modern sense. However what did exist was a series of networks of power, authority and influence that could at key times take on a consistency that gave them the appearance and indeed power of a state. Confessionalisation could be an important element in this process, giving existing networks an increased efficiency and potency.

[35] Michael Braddick, ‘State formation and social change in early modern England’, Social History, 16, (1991), pp. 1-17, p. 2.

[36] For the seminal discussion of popery as a concept see Peter Lake, ‘Anti-popery: the Structure of a Prejudice’, in Conflict in Early Stuart England: Studies in Religion and Politics 1603-1642, ed. Richard Cust and Ann Hughes, (London: 1989), pp. 72-106. Despite the early Stuart focus of Lake’s essay its description of the essential qualities of popery can be applied across the early modern period. This is because, despite important changes to reflect the political situation, popery ( and its twin heresy ) in terms of its practices and effects within the polity remained constant from 1530-1688.

[37] It is often assumed that this effect of confessionalization was inherently Protestant, but this is not the case. In Mary Tudor’s reign in the work of the writer Miles Hogarde Catholicism as a confessionalised identity is deployed to valorize his artisan voice against those lukewarm members of Marian regime who were failing to properly stamp out the dangers of heresy.

[38] Popery and heresy also, however, operated to sustain the legitimacy of the Falcon’s rejection of the Cuckoo’s song on the ‘aesthetic’ grounds that it was too monotonous since they filled up the political sphere with explanations of social conflict that, while being monotonous in their own way, allowed the expense of a great deal of wit, humor and vitriol.

[39] This could lead to a crisis of legitimation of the kind discussed in the work of Jürgen Habermas who writes: “In traditional societies the type of crisis that arises proceeds from internal contradictions. The contradiction exists between validity claims of systems of norms and justifications that cannot explicitly permit exploitation, and a class structure in which privileged appropriation of socially produced wealth is the rule.”. See Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, trans. Thomas McCarthy, (London: 1976), p. 20. The classic example of a crisis like this in the mid-Tudor period is the camping movement that spread across the south-east of England in 1549 when large numbers of people across acted on the constant incitement to the duke of Somerset’s government and decided to take a hand in producing a godly commonwealth. The result was to expose the conflict between the Protestant Christian agenda of the government and its absolute commitment to the existing social order.

[40] In practice the early modern English polity functioned best with a monarch who in terms of the discourse of confessionalization was lukewarm since this created the possibility for endless political debate, particularly around the issue of counsel.

[41] See Gerald Strauss, Enacting the Reformation in Germany: Essays on institution and reception, (Aldershot: 1993), p. 5.

[42] On the Reformation as a pan-European process leading to the creation of authorized texts see John Bossy, Christianity in the West 1400-1700, (Oxford: 1985), p. 103.

[43] Reinhard comments: “The alliance of Church and State during the process of “Confessionalisation” reached its culmination in the field of ideas and emotions, where it secured the consent of the subjects to their own subjugation” (p. 403). In the English context this subjugation took place not at State level since the Church of England effectively defined itself as non-confessional, despite its Protestantism. Instead it took place among those for embraced a fully confessionalised Protestant religious identity-the Puritans. On the relation of confessionalisation and popular culture see Schilling, p. 603.

[44] The confessional aspects of Southwell’s poetry are discussed by Brian Cummings in The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace, (Oxford: 2002), pp. 346–355.

[45] For a discussion of these works see Tom Betteridge, Literature and Politics in the English Reformation, (Manchester: 2004).

[46] Peter Lake and Michael Questier have discussed the struggle over the meaning of the deaths of Catholic priests during Elizabeth’s reign. They comment: “The basic thrust of Catholic resistance involved a determination to affirm their status as martyrs, men of conscience punished for their religious convictions, against the equally determined efforts of the authorities to type them as traitors.” See Peter Lake and Michael Questier, ‘Agency, Appropriation and Rhetoric under the Gallows: Puritans, Romanists and the State in Early Modern England’, PP, 153 (1996), pp. 64-107, p. 77. The Catholic priests sought to construct their deaths within a confessional discourse, while the authorities worked against this as part of their campaign to deny that the priest’s deaths were martyrdoms. Both martyrs and executors were conscious of playing out a religious drama before a crowd whose sympathies were there to be won or lost.

[47] Erasmus explicitly rejected confessionalisation as a process and in The Preface to his edition of St Hilary implies that the emergence of its mechanics was a key element in the corruption of Christ’s church. He writes: “Once faith was more a matter of a way of life than of a profession of articles. Soon necessity inspired the imposition of articles, but these were few and apostolic in their moderation. Then the wickedness of the heretics made for a more precise examination of the sacred books, and intransigence necessitated the definition of certain matters of authority by synods. Finally faith began to reside in the written word rather than the soul, and there were almost as many faiths as men. Articles increased, but sincerely decreased: contention boiled over, charity grew cold … At length the consequence of all this was sophistical controversy and the eruption of thousands of articles.” See Erasmus Desiderius, ‘Erasmus’ Letter to Carondelet: The Preface to His Edition of St Hilary’, trans. John C. Olin, in Six Essays on Erasmus, John C. Olin, (New York: 1979), pp. 93-120, p. 104-5. By the end of this passage it is hard not to think that Erasmus is no longer discussing church history so much as the state of Reformation Christianity.

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