Author: McGinnis, Scott
Date published: March 1, 2013
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Book Reviews and Notes
Historians of the religious controversies of Elizabethan England, particularly those concerned with social history, have often mined the period's polemical dialogues for their lively characters, pithy putdowns, and vivid colloquialisms. Who would not rather read a comically satirical dialogue instead of a dry theological treatise? In this regard it turns out historians are no different than their subjects. In this excellent new book, Antoinina Bevan Zlatar argues that polemicists quite consciously chose the classical (and newly revived) genre of the dialogue in order to tickle their audience's ears and make them embrace new doctrines and reform. Although historians have exploited the dialogues for their images of the popular reception of the reformation, Bevan Zlatar suggests that historians have by and large a tin ear when it comes to discerning the genre's literary qualities and potential, particularly its fictive elements. On the other hand, she asserts the few literary critics to take note of early modern dialogues have paid insufficient attention to their historical context. Bevan Zlatar aims to straddle the disciplinary divide with a historicist reading of the dialogues as "rhetorical constructs produced by particular men at particular moments in the Elizabethan Reformation with the aim of educating the 'unlearned' in the state of the English Church" (6).
Initial chapters in the book lay the groundwork for the reemergence of the dialogue during the Tudor period. Bevan Zlatar looks to both medieval English models and Continental works as influential, especially Erasmus, who appears as a key figure here. His De utilitate colloquiorum provided a theoretical framework that understood the power of dialogues to coax the young into learning by delivering ethics, grammar, and the like along with "bits of cake" (12). He did so by sketching true-to-life, frequently comic figures who vividly embodied vices or virtues, thereby making the lessons more accessible. To this amusing cast of characters, Erasmus mixed in irony--the simple peasant often proves to have more faith than the learned priest--toward the end of moving and reforming his readers. Fictionality served another purpose as well for those writing about potentially controversial topics: it provided plausible deniability. Toward this end, Elizabethan polemicists invented characters with suggestive names--Parson Neverbegood, Miles Monopodios--in order to score points while skirting the limits of politically acceptable criticism. The Henrician and Edwardian periods saw the dialogue put to use in the service of criticizing the church and clergy. The works tended to be shorter (often less than fifty pages) and quite possibly designed to be read aloud. Though Elizabethan polemicists would later produce much longer works, Bevan Zlatar departs from previous interpreters of Elizabethan dialogues in seeing more continuity than change between the earlier and later; common topoi include the simple layman armed only with scripture who is able to best the intellectually inferior cleric, the failed conversion narrative, and the unrelenting focus on the need for preaching clergy to feed their flocks. In sum, the first half of the sixteenth century provided Elizabethans with numerous models for the polemical uses of fiction.
Exactly what were the targets of the Elizabethan polemicists' satirical pens, and who was the intended audience of the dialogues? In chapter 5 Bevan Zlatar reads anti-Catholic dialogues by John Nicholls and George Gifford against the background of the Jesuit Edmund Campion's trial (1581) and more broadly, the looming threat of international Catholicism. She argues that both were part of a "government-sponsored" (132) campaign to discredit Campion and justify harsh treatment of the Catholics. On the other hand, Francis Savage's dialogue between a recusant mother and her Protestant son ends in a conversion and so suggests the hope that the Catholic threat might be met by impassioned conversation among family and friends. Chapter 6 takes up the litany of puritan complaints against the episcopacy, ranging from the vestments controversy of the 1560s and Anthony Gilby's clever, one-legged soldier in A Pleasant Dialogue , to the late 1580s and the caustically satirical dialogues written by Job Throckmorton, one-time member of Parliament, radical Presbyterian, and author of the notorious Marprelate papers. Bevan Zlatar carefully maps how the tone and content of dialogues shift as puritan fortunes wane: for instance, Throckmorton uses a feckless, almost pitiful bishop as his satirical foil, unlike earlier dialogues that took aim at the episcopacy through proxy characters such as a witless bishop's chaplain. Chapter 7 considers the problem of "atheists," the puritans' term for the insufficiently reformed, and as with the anti-Catholic dialogues, Bevan Zlatar finds a mixture of pessimism and optimism concerning the fate of those who filled the parishes of England. Along this line, Bevan Zlatar concludes that the many popularizing strategies employed by the dialogists suggest a wide audience; the polemicists were preaching not only to the converted but also the very characters who were so vividly depicted in their works.
Reformation Fictions is one of those books that once written, seems immediately indispensible for any consideration of its subject. It will be usefully read alongside such works as Peter Lake and Michael Questier's The Antichrist's Lewd Hat (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002) and somewhat in contrast to the approach of Christopher Haigh in The Plain Man's Pathways to Heaven (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). Bevan Zlatar succeeds on several fronts. First, by limiting her selections to a handful of authors and a manageable corpus of their writings, she avoids overwhelming the reader with a litany of lightly explicated sources. The reader gets a good sense of the works under consideration. The writing style also makes for a very readable book: chapter organization is exceptionally clear, and the author's felicitous turns of phrase and eye for the juicy quote keep the reader's interest. This is a fine work that deserves to have wide readership across the disciplines. One regrets only that the initial publication price puts it out of reach for personal libraries of all but the most well-resourced of scholars.