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A context for The Faerie Queene

Edmund Spenser and the first readers of The Faerie Queene routinely heard their national concerns—epidemics, political plotting, recent Tudor history—discussed in biblical terms. This book samples contemporary sermons, homilies, and liturgies to demonstrate that religious rhetoric, with its routine use of biblical types (for Elizabeth, the Spanish threat, and Mary Stuart, among many others) trained Spenser’s original readers to understand The Faerie Queene’s allegorical method. Accordingly, the first three chapters orient the reader to allegorical and typological reading in biblical commentary, occasional liturgies, and sermons. This pulpit literature illuminates many episodes and characters within the poem, and subsequent chapters discuss some of these. For instance, the genealogies Guyon and Arthur discover in Book Two parallel sermon lists of Elizabeth’s kingly forebears as well as biblical commentary on the genealogies provided for Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Florimell’s adventures in Books Three and Four, like contemporary marriage sermons, develop an allegory of the superiority of marriage over the single state. Likewise, the preachers’ treatment of the Northern Rebellion and the threat posed by Mary Stuart show biblical typology in the service of nationalism, much as the allegory of Book Six finds a way to celebrate Elizabeth’s execution of her cousin. In these cases, as in the Souldan episode, Book Six’s analysis of courtesy, and the Mutability Cantos, Elizabethan religious rhetoric lends support to traditional readings of the poem, indicating that Spenser’s original readers probably found The Faerie Queene less conflicted and subversive than many do today.

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A context for The Faerie Queene
Margaret Christian

Spenser described his allegorical epic to his friend Walter Raleigh as an alternative to straightforward moral and religious teaching. This book seeks to put Spenser’s project in context by introducing readers to Spenser’s reference point—16th century sermons, homilies, and liturgies—particularly their use of biblical types for contemporary individuals and concerns. In contrast to deconstructive, gender-based, or psychoanalytic studies, this book attempts to read The Faerie Queene as its first readers might have done. Sermon studies by A. F. Herr, Peter Blench, Millar MacLure, and Peter McCullough and his collaborators are useful guides; many printed sermons are available on the database Early English Books Online. An outline of the book’s nine chapters and acknowledgements close the introduction.

in Spenserian allegory and Elizabethan biblical exegesis
Old and new
Margaret Christian

Allegoresis is interpreting a text written with straightforward literal intent as if it were an allegory. In typology, a literal person or object is treated as an anticipatory example of someone or something to come. The Bible was the most important text subject to this kind of reading, including by New Testament writers. A sampling of commentaries on the parable of the sower (Matthew 13) and the rivalry between Mary and Martha (Luke 10) demonstrates the stability of allegorical readings from the patristic to the early modern era. Although the extent to which the Bible was properly read allegorically was hotly debated in the sixteenth century, even William Tyndale’s practice had much in common with traditional four-fold interpretation. Marginal glosses from the Geneva Bible indicate the general acceptance (and by extension, the transparency) of allegorical reading. Spenser’s use of words like "type," "shadow," "image," and "figure" refer to traditional biblical exegesis, adapting a method familiar to Elizabethans from religious sources.

in Spenserian allegory and Elizabethan biblical exegesis
Margaret Christian

Occasional liturgies are scripts for religious services which respond to specific occasions: emergencies like plague (in 1563), Muslim invasions in Europe (in 1565 and 1566), bad weather (in 1571), the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the London earthquake of 1580, the Spanish invasion (expected from 1586 through 1588), or plots against the queen like Dr. Parry’s in 1585 and Babington’s in 1586. Two occasional liturgies from 1576 and 1585 offer readings and prayers for November 17, signalling that, like Pentecost and Christmas, Accession Day was part of the church year. Identifying England with Israel, liturgists treated Elizabethan current events and public figures as interchangeable with events and characters described in the Bible. Elizabethan churchgoers thus had abundant training in decoding allegorical narratives—a facility they could bring to a reading of The Faerie Queene.

in Spenserian allegory and Elizabethan biblical exegesis
Margaret Christian

Elizabethan preachers and homilists embraced providentialism, looking to history, both biblical and secular, to read universal moral principles and God’s eternal purposes in their contemporary scene. According to John Aylmer, Esther was a type of Anne Boleyn while Mordechai figured Archbishop Cranmer; Richard Curteys saw Athaliah as a type of Mary Tudor, and David foreshadowed Elizabeth. According to William Barlow, the Roman Coriolanus typified the Earl of Essex, while the earl perversely saw himself as David and Elizabeth as Saul—an identification Barlow took seriously enough to refute at some length. Thomas Holland, preaching on Accession Day, recounted the positive attributes and godly behaviour of the Queen of Sheba without explicitly identifying her with Elizabeth, demonstrating how adept sermon-goers were expected to be at the kind of allegorical reading The Faerie Queene demands.

in Spenserian allegory and Elizabethan biblical exegesis
Genealogy in biblical exegesis and the Legend of Temperance
Margaret Christian

Elizabethans thought genealogy offered a key to character, as shown by their analyses of the discrepancies between the lists of Christ’s forebears in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Since spiritual kinship was a criterion for inclu¬sion in such a list, preachers like Richard Curteys and Edwin Sandys demonstrate that Elizabeth’s family tree properly included biblical ancestors. In the chronicle history cantos, Spenser, with a similar concern to capture Elizabeth’s essential nature, provided the queen with spiritually significant ancestors from pre-history and from invention. Awareness of the cultural resources Spenser used in creating (and his first readers used in making sense of) these lists of ancestors relieves us of the burden of distilling a consistent moral and political message from Briton moniments and Antiquitie of Faerie lond.

in Spenserian allegory and Elizabethan biblical exegesis
Florimell and the sea
Margaret Christian

This chapter examines sermon uses of the image of the sea and the ship to demonstrate that the ocean, for Elizabethans, represented not only a realm of magic and fertility but also the spiritual dangers of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Sermons by Stephen Gosson, Richard Madox, Robert Wilkinson (among others) as well as Geneva Bible illustrations and glosses, provide parallels for Britomart’s lament at III.iv and a key to the moral meaning of the various settings of Florimell’s adventures: her near-rape by the fisherman, imprisonment by Proteus at III.viii-ix, and rescue by Cymoent in IV.xii. The sea setting sharpens the point of narrative references to divine intervention, and the sermons show how these episodes’ sea settings make sense for Spenser’s dramatizing the incompleteness of the single life that propels men and women toward their destiny of married love.

in Spenserian allegory and Elizabethan biblical exegesis
Allegories of the Armada
Margaret Christian

When the Spanish invasion force of 1588 met with successful English resistance and disastrous weather, losing thousands of men and 62 of 130 ships, contemporary observers and participants on both sides believed the outcome reflected God’s intervention. English sermons used Bible stories to develop a patriotic and providentialist interpretation of the gathering threat and subsequent Spanish defeat. Sermons before the attempted invasion, by Thomas Drant, Meredith Hanmer, and William Gravet, demonstrate the comparison preachers drew a between Islam and Roman Catholicism (as Spenser created a Muslim sultan to represent the Roman Catholic Spanish threat). Sermons celebrating the English victory, by John Prime, Thomas White, Roger Hackett, and Stephen Gosson, show that Spenser and the preachers drew on the same biblical theme of God’s judgment and motifs of horses, chariot, and hardware.

in Spenserian allegory and Elizabethan biblical exegesis
Mercilla and other Elizabethan types
Margaret Christian

The 1570 "Homelie against Disobedience" and court sermons responding to the Northern Rebellion and the threat posed by Mary Stuart employ biblical figures to develop a spiritual interpretation of current events. Public sermons in 1587, the year of Mary Stuart’s execution, and in 1589 likewise use biblical typology which shades into nationalism. Recent critics see the Mercilla episode, in its idealization of Elizabeth’s attitude and inaccurate presentation of Mary Stuart’s trial, as evidence of Spenser’s bad faith or a sophisticated critique of power. Rather, his allegory recalls preachers’ use of typology to spiritualize recent events and present them as reflecting well upon Elizabeth and God’s care of England.

in Spenserian allegory and Elizabethan biblical exegesis
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Sermon contexts for Spenser’s Book VI
Margaret Christian

Sermon references to courtiers and court inveigh against ambition, luxury, pleasure-seeking, flattery, and intrigue while commending biblical courtiers like Joseph, Moses, David, and Nehemiah for their godliness and service to common people. Elizabethan courtesy, a Christian virtue reflecting the character of God, is properly manifested in court as well as contryside: by noblemen to those in distress and to commoners like shepherds, and conversely by hospitable householders like Abraham and Lot to their angel visitors, or Caelia to Redcrosse and Melibœ to Calidore. Its opposite is malicious slander like that personified in the Blatant Beast. Sermon references to court and courtesy show that Spenser’s treatment of these topoi, far from being subversive or jaded, is very conventional. Spenser’s Calidore had important biblical role models, particularly in Nehemiah and Moses.

in Spenserian allegory and Elizabethan biblical exegesis