Christian Identity, Piety, and Politics in Early Modern England
This book challenges the adequacy of identifying religious identity with confessional identity.
The Reformation complicated the issue of religious identity, especially among Christians for whom confessional violence at home and religious wars on the continent had made the darkness of confessionalization visible. Robert E. Stillman explores the identity of “Christians without names,” as well as their agency as cultural actors in order to recover their consequence for early modern religious, political, and poetic history.
Stillman argues that questions of religious identity have dominated historical and literary studies of the early modern period for over a decade. But his aim is not to resolve the controversies about early modern religious identity by negotiating new definitions of English Protestants, Catholics, or “moderate” and “radical” Puritans. Instead, he provides an understanding of the culture that produced such a heterogeneous range of believers by attending to particular figures, such as Antonio del Corro, John Harington, Henry Constable, and Aemilia Lanyer, who defined their pious identity by refusing to assume a partisan label for themselves. All of the figures in this study attempted as Christians to situate themselves beyond, between, or against particular confessions for reasons that both foreground pious motivations and inspire critical scrutiny. The desire to move beyond confessions enabled the birth of new political rhetorics promising inclusivity for the full range of England’s Christians and gained special prominence in the pursuit of a still-imaginary Great Britain. Christian Identity, Piety, and Politics in Early Modern England is a book that early modern literary scholars need to read. It will also interest students and scholars of history and religion.
Introduction: Peace-Wars on the Continent and in Britain
1. John Harington and the Confessional Beyond
2. Neuters and the Politics of Language in Early Modern Polemic,
Or How to Trouble the Confessional Divide
3. Imagining Christendom in Britain. Political Romance in 1589 and Disenchantment
4. Enacting the Politics of Christendom. After the Scottish Mission (1590), James VI and I
5. Poetic Energy and Poetic Economy in the Post-Reformation
6. Examining Constable’s Sonnets, Or the Pleasures of Pious Miscegenation
7. Reading the Critical Conversation about Aemilia Lanyer: Performing Presence in the Confessional Beyond
“In our scholarly rush to classify early modern thinkers and writers according to religious confessions, we have unwittingly overlooked thinkers who regretted the fragmentation that confessionalism imposed, those who longed for a united Christianity however impractical its realization may have been. Stillman’s argument is fresh, persuasive, and important.” —Susannah Monta, author of Martyrdom and Literature in Early Modern England
“Christian Identity, Piety, and Politics in Early Modern England is brilliant. The writing is always distinguished and occasionally more than that. Such a pleasure.” —Roger Kuin, editor of The Correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney
“This broad, energetic, important study deserves to be widely assimilated . . . Stillman's book has the potential both to refine future Reformation-era taxonomies, and to show where those taxonomies cannot reach.” —British Catholic History
“The most significant engagement with the confessionalization thesis in early modern literary studies to date....an indispensable guide for future work.” —Reformation
The Reformation fragmented the once whole and holy body of Christendom, a locus of spiritual and political unity whose loss was universally lamented, even if that unity had never been fully complete or fully holy. Such fragmentation seems now the inevitable consequence of its genesis and its discontinuous development across Europe’s nation states. In the course of the sixteenth-century’s Reformation and Counter-Reformation, divisions among the Christian churches proliferated inside what historians call the era of confessionalization—that era when the various religious institutions most visibly distinguished themselves by their divided “confessions” (or published formularies) of belief. Exceptional for other reasons, England’s Reformation was marked by divisions that seem now just as inevitable and irreparable as those of the Reformation writ large. Many of the religious identities that we still acknowledge descend from the confessional categories established after England’s break from Rome, or from categories newly identified inside England because of religious upheavals on the continent. “Roman Catholic,” “Protestant,” “Lutheran,” “Calvinist,” “Baptist,” “Presbyterian,” “Congregationalist,” “Quaker,” and “Anglican” (a latecomer) are confessional names that monumentalize divisions among early moderns as both irreparable and inevitable in no small part because of their familiarity. They name us to ourselves.
This is a book about Christians in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean England who espoused forms of piety, who engaged in politics, and who wrote bodies of fiction informed by a wholly different understanding about repairing Christendom and remediating conflict among the divided confessions. These figures were educators, jurists, poets, men-of-business and courtiers, diplomats and divines, women of consequence and women aspiring to consequence. My book studies their identity as “Christians without names” and their agency as cultural actors in order to recover their consequence for early modern religious, political, and poetic history. At the same historical moment in which England became a battleground for competing factions, sects and churches— especially in the decades between 1580 and 1610 when the polemical use of labels like “Protestant” and “church papist” and “Puritan” first turned the public domain into a coliseum for confessional combat-- a significant number of figures voiced their opposition to the confessionalization of Christianity. All expressed horror at confessional names—refusing any name but “Christian”—and puzzled thereby every category that might explain or explain them away. From the vantage of these early moderns, the division among the churches seemed neither irreparable nor self-evidently permanent. It seemed like something altogether more startling.
“Division” was itself a term that provoked divided responses. Thomas Nashe knew whom to blame for shredding the church (that “vesture of salvation”) into so many pieces, thereby soiling its parts—“the Anabaptists and adulterous Familists” and “Martinists” with “a hood with two faces, to hide their hypocrisy; and the barrowists and greenwoodians a garment full of the plague, which is not to be worne before it be new washed.” As a verbally dexterous hit man in the service of the Elizabethan church, Nashe employed polemic to police its boundaries. Separatists and non-conformists were heretics, no better than Roman soldiers gambling away Christ’s clothes beneath the cross. On the other side of the confessional abyss, the brilliant propagandist and Jesuit Father Robert Persons also reasoned about division. With a devastating logic of his own, Persons routinely instructed the Reformed about division’s real meaning, since the Reformation itself was the original schism, and all the Reformers schismatics and all the schismatics heretics. Puritans like George Gifford thought about division differently too. The eruption of some fifty sects inside England might trouble sober Christians, Gifford admitted, but rightly understood their number merely confirmed the rightness of the godly in separating themselves. Division kept the pure pure for the gathering of the saints. The rhetoric of division even sometimes sponsored ecumenical visions about England’s church. The wildly popular writer of devotional literature Edmund Bunny counselled about the potential reconciliation between England and Rome (conceived piously as branches of a single church), if only Rome would sue for divorce from Satan. Your “If” is your only peacemaker, says Shakespeare’s Touchstone. Ecumenism had its politics, ecclesiastical and otherwise, and the rhetoric of division was regularly coopted for institutional ends.
The “Christians without names” who are the subject of this book represented division differently. Instead of turning “division” into weaponry against confessional enemies, such Christians were distinctive precisely because they represented the contemporary division among the confessions as itself—startling to say--a species of impiety. Confessionalization was a recent eruption into the cultural order, and a ready object of attack. To identify oneself as a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Puritan—rather than as a Christian—offended against the universalism of the Gospel and Christendom’s unity of the faithful in the body of Christ.
Restoring the peace of Christendom meant removing or repairing or transcending the confessional divide. Yet even among these Christians who deplored the confessional divide, division was interpreted differently. The divide that mattered most to a great many (to Philip Sidney, for instance, and to those humanists who tutored him in Vienna) was the one troubling the Reformed churches. It turned Calvinists, crypto-Calvinists, Lutherans, and gnesio-Lutherans against each other—an impiety and a political danger (and a confusion of Babel!) because of the imminent, geopolitical threat from the Spanish Philip II and the Catholic League. The Reformed needed a united front. For others, the division that mattered most was that principal abyss separating Catholic and Protestant, and assailing the impiety of confessionalization found its express motive in repairing that divide or finding some causeway across the abyss.