14.11.10, Kelen, ed., Tudor Views of the Middle Ages

Main Article Content

Joel T. Rosenthal

The Medieval Review 14.11.10

Kelen, Sarah A.. Renaissance Retrospections: Tudor Views of the Middle Ages. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2013. Pp. ix, 233. ISBN: 978-1-58044-174-2 ( (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Joel T. Rosenthal
Stony Brook University (emeritus)

The title of this collection of ten papers does not indicate that they are about literature, not about "history" as such. In this respect this volume differs considerably from May McKisack's 1971 Medieval History in the Tudor Age, a distinction that is important to point out but that is being drawn without casting aspersions on the quality of the volume under review. These papers explore some of the ways in which writers (and printers and readers and audiences) of Tudor England turned to, altered, and used the transmitted culture and lore--historical as well as literary --of the Middle Ages (and of classical antiquity as it came to them through medieval voices). In this selective process, one of pick-and-choose for both Tudor writers and for their current expositors, several themes are developed in some depth. One concerns the way and the extent to which Protestant authors turned to the English past to validate their cause, their creed. Though this return to the unadulterated Christianity of earlier days is a familiar bedrock on which much of Protestantism defense or apologetics was based, we have case studies showing how different bodies of literature were made to serve this end. The second theme argues--as a theme or trope that is probably of greater concern for literary historians than for academic historians--that the medieval texts being examined really had a continuing life, one that might have begun with the (medieval) author and text but which proceeded over time to incorporate those who copied and/or printed the text, the sixteenth-century author or authors whose work is our main concern, and finally, by extension, the social universe of the author's readers or audience. At the very start of her introduction Sarah Kelen tells us that we will see how "antecedent texts [were used] for narrative models...[and] writing very frequently meant rewriting" (1). The nine papers that follow speak, in different ways, to this manifesto.

In reviewing a volume of collected papers it is proper to accord some notice to each contribution; doing so here emphasizes the collective endorsement for the strategy of exposition and argument the editor has set forth. A third theme that emerges and offers still more common ground is in the extent to which our sixteenth-century authors often validated their contributions by placing the work in question within a context of insular and essentialist English history, one standing apart from and clearly superior to what was offered by foreigners and/or post-Henrician Catholics. We see this in Dan Breen's look at Bale's Kynge Johan, Bale leaning on Leland and giving us a king who, while eventually yielding the floor to Veritas, emerges as a defender of true Englishmen. King and people united for "an act of resurrection" (17). Kathy Cawsey tracks the way that I Playne Piers was put together from various late medieval and pre-Reformation texts as part of the program to ground the new faith in old ground and with deep roots. (The text Cawsey discusses is published as a 728 appendix). Thomas Prendergast also goes in this direction, explaining how it served partisan purposes to focus on "Robert Langland" as the author of Piers Plowman. Tracing the evolution of Robert's identity fits into the living-text theme of the volume as we juggle interpretations of pre-Reformation radicalism.

A major flaw in medieval Catholicism was its affinity for "accumulation," that is, for its practice of making things more complicated in contrast to the simplicity of Protestantism, as Jesse Lander explains John Foxe's assessment of the old faith. Foxe's concern for the periodization of the Christian past was another way to argue for the necessity of returning to those far-off days of cultural homogeneity in contrast to more recent ones of idolatry. Common law (which by coincidence also just happened to be Protestant law) rested on Old English laws--not those of perfidious foreigners or Catholics--or so it was argued in the sixteenth century by the great legal scholar, William Lambarde, and as presented now in Rebecca Brackmann's paper. Antiquity and continuity are the two sides of this coin. Whether at the theater or on the printed page, that kiss between decapitated heads held on poles--by such rebels as those with Jack Cade in 1451 or Wat Tyler in 1381--conveyed a thrill of horror. This crude if effective form of protest was a symbol of the "inversion" that was both cause and effect of social disorder, as Kellie Robertson picks up Shakespeare's sources for Henry VI. William Kuskin pays less attention to religious matters and more to that living text theme in tracking Chaucer, Lydgate, Caxton, and then, finally, Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida as all of them lined up in "a kind of literary hall of mirrors" when it came to the transmission of a story and the pointing of its moral. Lastly, Nancy Warren talks about "owning the Middle Ages," pitting John Foxe's views about women in power and the Brigittine nuns (now having fled to Portugal) against that of the Jesuit Robert Parsons, the latter worrying about "true" Lancastrian kingship. To Foxe the nuns were but whores (with details provided), whereas to his opponent they were models of female sanctity. But we know we are not looking at a world where many would have agreed to disagree.

These papers are off the beaten track of most historical scholarship. That is among their virtues--reminding us of continuity across such a canonical divide as pre- and post-Reformation England, reminding us that so much literature "refashion[s] historiography by incorporating work that is already extant," and by diluting the waters of Clio's well with a dash of theory. If terms like "metadramatic" or "somatic antitheatricality" or "orgulity"--let alone "orgulousness"--are not in the usual vocabulary at the history department coffee table, there is nothing wrong with going down the hall to find out how colleagues, interested in the same problems concerning that strange country of the past, explain their work.

Article Details

Author Biography

Joel T. Rosenthal

Stony Brook University (emeritus)