18.09.11, Archer, Unperfect Histories

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Steven Gunn

The Medieval Review 18.09.11

Archer, Harriet. Unperfect Histories: The Mirror for Magistrates, 1559-1610. Oxford English Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. pp. 224. ISBN: 978-0-19880-617-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Steven Gunn
Merton College, University of Oxford

While less eye-catching than rebellion, court politics, or religious change, the historical understanding of the English population in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been studied at a steady rate and from many angles over a sustained period. In part of course, this is because how the past was understood related to many of the other issues that interest historians and literary scholars: how government should be conducted, how land should be used, how social and religious authority could be justified, how readers used books, how dramatized or polemical accounts of the past might be constructed or received, what it meant to be English or to hail from one town or county or another. In part it is because the transmission and preservation of ideas, by oral, manuscript or printed means, by performances and objects, have been of interest to those working in fields from the history of landscape, or pageantry, or preaching to the study of the composition and reception of texts of all kinds, and understandings of the past are an apt subject for such study. And in part it is because the subject lends itself both to fine-grained analysis of sources for and versions of particular episodes in Shakespeare, or Foxe, or Holinshed, and to large-scale argument about "Forms of Nationhood," "The Memory of the People," or "The Social Circulation of the Past" (in the formulations of Richard Helgerson, Andy Wood, and Daniel Woolf respectively).

In such investigations the Mirror for Magistrates plays an intriguing role. A collection of verse laments conveying moral lessons in the voices of notable figures from English history with linking prose sections, its publication history was complex. A first version was suppressed under Queen Mary, then six editions, sometimes in several parts, appeared between 1559 and 1578, two more were produced in 1587 and 1610, and this last incarnation enjoyed five more printings between 1619 and 1621. After the death of the first compiler William Baldwin, who had already added new poems and prefatory material to the edition of 1563, three successive editors expanded the collection. They made further changes to the existing texts and extended the chronological range backwards from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to cover the Britons, Romans and Saxons and forwards to take in Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell and in the end even the events of Elizabeth's reign.

The Mirror reflected the historical understanding of significant figures in Elizabethan literary and antiquarian circles who contributed to the collection, such as Thomas Churchyard, George Ferrers, Thomas Sackville and Henry, Lord Stafford. It must have informed the historical understanding of many others, both authors who used or parodied it--Shakespeare, Jonson and so on--and those who read or saw the original volumes or the books and plays drawing upon them. Yet it is hard to pin down, being, as Harriet Archer puts it, "capacious, allusive, and contradictory" (13), its cast of characters wide enough to take the reader's historical imagination away from kings and other great men to Jack Cade and Michael Joseph, leaders of the popular revolts of 1450 and 1497, to Owain Glyn Dŵr and James I of Scots, to Jane Shore and Eleanor Cobham, duchess of Gloucester, even before King Lud and Julius Caesar, Uther Pendragon and St Æbbe the younger joined in. Here is a text ripe for the analysis of polyvocality, lability of meaning and "the potent agency of a volatile textual past" (139).

The Mirror has not been neglected. Lily B. Campbell's edition of 1938 made it familiar to modern readers and it featured in influential accounts of cultural and political history from E.M.W. Tillyard's The Elizabethan World Picture to the essays of M. E. James. Archer engages in detail with several dozen earlier interpretations of the work, including books by Paul Budra (2000) and Scott Lucas (2009) and the essays in a collection she edited with Andrew Hadfield (2016). Like Lucas she sees in the Mirror's poems allusions to the political and religious strains and debates of the day. Whereas his analysis concentrates on the collections of 1559 and 1563 and their Marian forerunner, hers considers mainly the later editions. Thomas Blenerhasset's Second Part of 1578 seems to refer to debates about the Elizabethan church and the queen's marriage and John Higgins's Mirror of 1587 to the threat from Spain and the succession question. Most strikingly, Richard Niccols's denunciations of ancient vices and celebrations of recent triumphs in 1610, when set alongside his other publications, for example on the Overbury murder scandal, make sense as a critique of the Jacobean regime's failure to live up the Elizabethan past. (This may presumably explain the rush of reprintings in 1619-1621 in the opening crisis of the Thirty Years War, though the matter is not discussed here). As others have done, she sets the compositions of successive contributors in the context of their own wider literary oeuvres, of the stock characteristic of their printers, and of the changing landscapes of English literature across Elizabeth's reign and beyond, the reception of Chaucer and Skelton, the impact of Spenser and Marlowe, and the rise of the history play. Yet her central line of argument is distinctive, that in different ways the successive editors used the collection to raise questions about the nature and standing of history.

Baldwin's collections of 1559 and 1563, she shows, framed their verses with material that commented on the use and dependability of sources in the construction of historical understanding, the "varyaunce of the cronycles" and "disagreynge of wryters" which was "a great hinderaunce of the truthe" and "no small cumbrauns to such as be diligent readers'" (fol. 98v of the 1563 edition). They pointed out the difficulties of interpretation even of the texts they presented, the complaint of Lord Hastings being characterised as "very darke, and hard to be understood" (22). The 1563 version developed, with Sackville's Induction, the device of historical characters appearing to the narrator in a dream, which had begun in Baldwin's framing material and was redeployed in later versions, to prompt a different kind of reflection on the boundaries between perception and reality. John Higgins's First Part of 1574-1575 faced more acute problems in dealing with its sources, since it had to admit that for the history of ancient Britain it had virtually none. The volume thus became "a flashpoint for contradictory humanisms" (43), claiming to draw moral truths from historical truths, yet confessing that it could not really go ad fontes to find those historical truths and leading Higgins in the end "to foreground the problematically fictive quality of this history" (59).

Thomas Blenerhasset in 1578 reflected in a rather different way on "the problematic creative agency of the historical poet" (96), producing a text "shot through with arbitrariness" (108) not by incompetence, but by design. He explicitly used his limited access to chronicle sources to justify his dramatization of history, while introducing personifications of Memory and Inquisition to choreograph his subjects' appearances and raising the difficulty of female characters in establishing their places in a historical world shaped by men. Here he tackled similar issues about the construction of our knowledge of the past to those which his contemporaries Montaigne, Spenser and Bacon were pondering. The 1587 Mirror, while ignoring Blenerhasset's work, took the tradition off in different directions again. Like other contemporary works it blended history and mythology without too much concern to distinguish between them and played up the theatricality of its enterprise: as Thomas Newton's introductory poem put it, "Certes this worlde a Stage may well bee calde" (135). Its tone in discussing implausible events was wry rather than anxious, as when the consumption of three successive reprobates by wolves prompted a comment on the evident ubiquity of both wolves and depravity in early Britain. Here the confrontation between the exemplary duty of the historian and the difficulty of establishing historical truth was more openly acknowledged than ever and the value of the exemplary mode itself undermined by Nero and Caracalla, one rejecting its lessons and the other perverting it to justify his iniquities. Perhaps the sole dependable lesson to be drawn from this version of the collection was that contemporary truism, the power of mutability. Niccols in 1610, lastly, in some ways took the collection full circle. He shaped his version implicitly as a more straightforward work of instruction in the de casibus mould, as England rose to Elizabethan glories and declined under James. In the process he smoothed out many of the anxieties about the nature of historical knowledge. He removed the prose and verse links between the complaints and his framing of the collection was comparatively blunt, claiming that he had changed the earlier texts to make "the storie in some places false and corrupted...historically true" (147). Yet at times he still found himself caught between the steadily diversifying genres of history and poetry.

Harriet Archer's book will not be the last word on the Mirror, and that is a good thing. Where Budra primarily unfolded its moral aspects and Lucas its political, her special focus on its historiopoetics will not preclude future investigations of such a diverse set of texts from new angles. It is also the case that her approach will sit more comfortably with literary scholars' approach to the period than historians'. Those who know their hypotext from their metatext will feel more at home than those uncomfortable with the unqualified application of terms such nationalism and feudalism to sixteenth-century England. Yet we should all value her insights, not just because they join those of others who read the Mirror as an important work in its own right and not merely as a source of stories in Shakespeare, but also because of the windows they provide on the meanings of the past in early modern England.

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