"Wise Handling and Faire Governance": Spenser's Female Educators
Sarah Plant
Macquarie University

Plant, Sarah. "'Wise Handling and Faire Governance': Spenser's Female Educators." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.3 (January, 2002): 1.1-37 <URL:

  1. Several of Spenser's most significant female characters play important and somewhat extraordinary roles in the dissemination of spiritual knowledge within The Faerie Queene. In appearing to take part in the ritual life of the Church, they seem to be out of step with contemporary definitions of women's roles. Women were still unable to celebrate any of the sacraments, although the Protestant Church retained the Catholic practice of allowing baptisms in extremis by midwives and other attendants until the reign of James I. [1] While there is no reason to suggest that Spenser is advocating a female ministry, the significance of his allocation of important educative roles to women merits further attention. These women, who are praised by the poet for their "wise handling and faire governance" (II.i.54) as they seek to educate, are the focus of this paper.

  2. Previous studies of Spenser's female characters have traditionally emphasised their role as examples of chastity and sexuality for women in general and Elizabeth in particular. Works such as Philippa Berry's Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen, Sheila T. Cavanagh's Wanton Eyes and Chaste Desires: Female Sexuality in The Faerie Queene, Susan Frye's "Engendered violence: Elizabeth, Spenser and the definitions of chastity" in Elizabeth I: the Competition for Representation, Julia Walker's, "Elizabeth is Britomart is Elizabeh: this Sex which is not won", in Medusa's Mirrors: Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton and the Metamorphosis of the Female Self, and Louise Schleiner's Cultural Semiotics, Spenser and the Captive Woman, have set the standard for studies of English Renaissance women in Spenserian literature. [2] Yet, there remains great scope for further detailed work on a specific demonstration of the educative role of Spenser's women.

  3. Sixteenth century educative practice classified women as inferior to men in that they were not expected to use their education for professional or social advancement. Higher education institutions made no provision for educating women, and the few examples of educated women of the period come from the richer echelons of society. [3] Justifications for educating women focused on the benefits of religious education to promote religious piety and virtue. [4] However, Spenser's own teacher at the Merchant Taylor's School was an advocate of female education. Richard Mulcaster's Positions Concerning the Training Up of Children (1581) contains a chapter devoted to the necessity that "young maidens are to be set to learning," and provides a series of justifications of this position. [5]

  4. In general terms Spenser's female characters are praised for fulfilling the roles of supportive partner or chaste virgin. The clergy's right to marry focussed attention on the role of the ministerial wife and mother, and Spenser's educating females are predominantly emblematic demonstrations of the ideal minister's wife. The wives of clergy had to be approved by the local bishop and two Justices of the Peace, and they had to be positive models for their husband's congregation. [6] The poet bears witness to his female characters' praiseworthy qualities, commending women in terms of their potential marital and motherly gifts.

  5. On the one occasion in The Faerie Queene when Spenser refers to an explicitly female priesthood, stating that "all the priests were damzels" in Venus' Temple (IV.x.38, 41), he focuses on the total femininity of the dwelling; all of the inhabitants are female, and its purpose is the celebration of women. Scudamour's forced entry and theft of Amoret is described in terms of violation, and the poet draws attention to his alienation from the setting. The Temple of Venus is a place associated with women and marriage and Spenser's female priesthood gives praise to these in terms of their spiritual worth, rather than specifically advocating a female ministry for the English Church.

  6. Nevertheless, Spenser does create a paradox in his creation of female spiritual educators which arises from women's assumed inferiority in the male-dominated world of the Church, particularly the world of Church leadership. Patricia Crawford summarises the ambiguous perception of women in the sixteenth-century Church:

    The Protestant and Catholic Churches had contradictory views of women. Both churches believed that women should be subject to male authority, yet both believed that she was an individual responsible for her own religious behaviour. Although Protestant reformers taught that God had predestined each individual to salvation or damnation, they still expected her to live a godly life, obeying God rather than man. [7]

    Characters like Una, the women in the House of Holiness, Alma, Britomart, and Mercilla all demonstrate great spirituality and Scriptural learning. Una supports and strengthens the Red Cross Knight with Scriptural references, beginning during his fight with Errour in Book I (I.i.19). She reminds him of the power of faith, giving him the strength to overcome the beast. In canto ix, her words lead the knight away from the subtle arguments of Despair, while revealing that he is one of the chosen (I.ix.52-53). Although she speaks of doctinal matters, such as predestination and faith, her aim remains to provide him with immediate aid and strength not to educate. She prays for his salvation in the battle with the dragon (I.xi.50), actively displaying the faith in God's grace that she had previously professed. On this occasion Spenser makes use of the traditional topos of intervention, drawing upon the Catholic imagery of the Virgin who interecedes on behalf of humanity. In all of these episodes Una appears to be directing and advising in moments of high stress, but is not actually depicted as an educator. While Una offers advice and spiritual assistance she does not claim to teach the knight.

  7. Yet there is one episode in the first book of The Faerie Queene in which Una does take upon herself the role of spiritual teacher. In the sixth canto she finds herself lost and abandoned amongst a "salvage nation" (I.vi.11) who resemble the satyrs and nymphs of classical mythology.

    Glad of such lucke the lucklesse lucky maid,
    Did her content to please their feeble eyes,
    And long time with that salvage people staid,
    To gather breath in many miseries.
    During which time her gentle wit she plyes,
    To teach them truth, which worshipt her in vaine,
    And made her the image of Idolatryes;
    But when their bootless zeale she did restraine
    From her own worship, they her Asse would worship fayn. (I.vi.19) [8]

    Although they are able to "read" her sorrow (I.vi.11), they are not able to comprehend her teachings and fall into idolatry. These "salvage people" have been variously identified as representative of an animalistic, primitive religion, pagans and even the Irish.[9] I see them as childish and uneducated, and thus appropriate subjects for Una's attempt at religious education. Women were not only expected to participate in the religious education of children, but were seen as the main providers of this early education. One seventeenth century woman expresses her fears that death through childbirth may prevent her from "executing that care I so exceedingly desired, I mean in religious training our child." The text she writes in the event of her demise contains an abbreviated version of the moral and religious education she planned to provide for her child. [10] The Homily of the state of matrimony refers to the provision of a spiritual education as the duty of both parents, an ideal echoed by Mulcaster in his work Positions. [11]

  8. However, Una does not attempt to teach doctrine, merely "truth," which is in fact her own nature. [12] In combining the roles of traditional intermediary and potential teacher of religious matters, Una represents the state of transition of women's roles in the English Church. Spenser draws upon traditional imagery in the absence of an established English Protestant tradition and conflates this image with the developing one of women's role as spiritual helpmate and educator of the young.

  9. In Book II Amavia is wife, mother and spiritual helpmate to Mordant until they are divided by death. Her goodness is stressed by contrast with the evil of Acrasia; she heals Mordant spiritually after his escape from Acrasia, gaining power by virtue of her married state:

    Till through wise handling and faire governance,
    I him recured to a better will (II.i.54)

    Spenser gives emphasis to Amavia's spiritual role by having her tell Guyon and the Palmer: "I wrapt my selfe in Palmers weed" (II.i.52). She thus takes on the role of the Palmer. Spenser's choice of "weed" to describe Amavia's dress is also significant in that it continues the contrast with Acrasia's weeds, which poison and distort. Acrasia uses "words and weeds" for "uses bad," while Amavia dresses herself in "Palmers weeds" and uses words to restore her partner to "better will," purging him of the drugs of the witch.

  10. "Governance" was a word associated with marriage by Chaucer and refers to the power allotted to women in certain areas of married life. [13] This word, and others from the same family, are used throughout The Faerie Queene in connection with both men and women to indicate self-restraint, temperance and controlled behaviour. Indeed, Book II, with the titular virtue of temperance, is where the majority of the references may be found. Yet, Spenser also makes use of its meaning in terms of guidance of others and regulation of their behaviour. In this way he plays with the duality of the word figuring both self and social control. By combining the Chaucerian association of "governance" with women and marriage with his own interpretation of the word as signifying self restraint, temperance and guidance, Spenser creates a role for the sixteenth-century woman as an active and significant member of the English Church.

  11. The use of "governance" as representative of a guiding hand that not only seeks to direct others towards moderation and self-regulation, but engages in active pursuit of its own self-regulation, is indicative of the role Elizabeth chose for herself. In taking on the title of Supreme Governor, rather than Head of the English Church, she sought to navigate a middle course between the conservatives, moderates and radicals who were all active in the task of creating a structure and form for the Church. Spenser's insistence on the governing and guiding role of his women educators both reflects Elizabeth's chosen role as Supreme Governor of the English Church, and provides a platform from which the poet is able to support and praise that choice. This portrait of a moral leader commends Elizabeth, while implicitly instructing her in the correct behaviour required of a godly prince and the governor of the Church of England. [14]

  12. Other women in The Faerie Queene who use words to cure the ills of men are the sisters in the House of Holiness, who are all defined by their names and empowered by the poet in their respective roles. All three sisters contribute to the spiritual growth of the Red Cross Knight, demonstrating the recognised place for women in the spiritual education of children and other members of the Christian congregation in the absence of a husband or patriarch. [15] Spenser reinforces this idea by removing all dominant male characters from the setting; the husband of Dame Caelia is never mentioned, the husband of Charissa is absent, and the Red Cross Knight is placed in a subordinate role as the sinner immersed in his own sinfulness and excluded from the Church until he has confessed his sins and received the gift of grace. The only men present in the House of Holiness are the servants and porters, the healers and the Seven Beadmen, all of whom may be interpreted as personifications of particular virtues and elements of the rites of confession and confirmation.

  13. Caelia (Heavenly Grace) is introduced as a "matrone grave and hore," who governs her house of holiness, "Renowned throughout the world for sacred lore." This representative of wisdom and good governance is easily recognisable as a potential image for the queen herself. Spenser is careful not to be too explicit in drawing attention to the parallels between the aging queen, who idealised herself as mother of her nation and Church, and the venerable mother who guides and oversees the most holy setting in the poem.

    There was an auntient house not farre away,
    Renowned throughout the world for sacred lore,
    And pure unspotted life: so well they say
    It governd was, and guided evermore,
    Through wisdome of a matrone grave and hore;
    Whose only joy was to relieve the needes
    Of wretched soules, and helpe the helpless pore:
    All night she spent in bidding of her bedes,
    And all the day in doing good and godly deedes. (I.x.3)

    In his juxtaposition of "governd" and "guided" in the central lines of the stanza Spenser draws out the duality of the word as used throughout The Faerie Queene. He then follows this potent image with a reference to "wisdom" and the image of ideal Church governorship is encapsulated in the lines:

    It governd was, and guided evermore,
    Through wisdome of a matrone grave and hore.

  14. The problematic final lines of the stanza, where the poet appears to be making reference to Catholic rituals may be explained in the contrast with his previous image of Catholic ritualism. The poet contrasts Caelia's division of labours between the night and day, and juxtaposes this image with the negative one of Dame Corceca, whose false and ritualistic prayers continue both "day and night" (I.iii.3). [16] Caelia's prayers are balanced by active expressions of faith, which Spenser praises as "good and godly," while Corceca performs no actions indicative of an active, lively and true faith. Thus Spenser uses the traditional imagery of the prayerful Christian "bidding of her bedes," familiar to his audience, while warning that such prayer must be accompanied by an active demonstration of faith. Like the Beadmen, Caelia is commended for her Christian good works as well as her prayerful nature. Although the Church of England was a national Church with a prescribed Protestant liturgy and doctrine, as outlined in the Prayer Book, the laity were still familiar with and accustomed to Catholic imagery well into the reign of Elizabeth. [17] Thus Spenser's use of perceived Catholic imagery may be once more interpreted as an attempt to convey new ideas with familiar images, in the absence of effective new images.


  15. In the episode in the House of Holiness Spenser introduces Fidelia as the eldest and therefore most senior of three spiritual sisters before ascribing to her images traditionally associated with the sun and Christ:

    Of which the eldest, that Fidelia hight,
    Like sunny beames threw from her Christall face,
    That could have dazd the rash beholders sight,
    And round about her head did shine like heavens light. (I.x.12)

    Not only does he indicate her lightness and brightness with the adjective "Christall," but his capitalisation of the word alludes to Christ himself, both in name and in nature. [18] He then continues the creation of Fidelia as Faith and her connection with the sun / son of God in the use of words such as: "sunny beames," "dazd" and "shine," and in the development of her physical radiance--she is perceived to be throwing out beams from her face. The description of her halo of light denotes both the sun and Christ. However, Spenser's establishment of Fidelia as the sunny, Christ-like representative of Faith in the House of Holiness is even more subtle: the poet links her to his later portrayal of the sun itself with verbal echoes and puns. He plays upon the word "hight," meaning named or called, repeating it in connection with the "heavens hight" traversed by the sun and manipulated by the power of Fidelia herself (I.x.20). In this same later stanza he echoes her active throwing out of radiance with the comment that she does "poure out her larger spright." [19]

  16. Spenser repeats his earlier portrayal of Una, the "True Church," as a symbolic representative of the sun with all its christian echoes. In the episode in which she removes the black stole which has hidden her brightness since her introduction to the narrative, Spenser compares her to the "morning starre" of the East, the "dawning day" and the "long wishèd light" (I.xii.21), the sun imagery conveying a sense of her brightness, nobility and divinity. [20] Her heavenly nature, previously indicated by her whiteness, is now labelled a "heavenly beautie" by Spenser (I.xii.23). In the next stanza the poet continues his association of Una with the sun, drawing the reader's attention to the connection between the images of her brightness and her heavenly nature:

    The blazing brightnesse of her beauties beame,
    And glorious light of her sunshyny face
    To tell, were as to strive against the streame.
    My ragged rimes are all too rude and bace,
    Her heavenly lineaments for to enchace.
    Ne wonder; for her own deare loved knight,
    All were she dayly with himselfe in place,
    Did wonder much at her celestiall sight:
    Oft he had seene her faire, but never so faire dight. (I.xii.24)

    The first line focuses the reader's sight upon Una's brightness, while the final word reintroduces the motifs of sunshine and light, which are enhanced in the next line, and contrasted with the so called "rude and bace" words of the poet. He then completes this description in the mention of Una's "dayly" presence with the knight. Finally, with the description of her "heavenly lineaments" Spenser combines the epideictic elements of praise of lineage and physical features.

  17. Fidelia has a particular role to play in the education of the Red Cross Knight. She takes him to her schoolroom and instructs him in Scripture and "celestiall discipline," offering him a catechetical education to prepare him for his role as defender of the Church:

    She graunted, and that knight so much agraste,
    That she him taught celestiall discipline,
    And opened his dull eyes, that light mote in them shine.

    And that her sacred Booke, with bloud ywrit,
    That none could read, except she did them teach,
    She unto him disclosed every whit,
    And heavenly documents therout did preach,
    That weaker wit of man could never reach,
    Of God, of grace, of justice, of free will,
    That wonder was to hear her goodly speach:
    For she was able with her words to kill,
    And raise againe to life the hart, that she did thrill. (I.x.18-19)

    Spenser associates his female teacher with the gift of grace when he states that she "agraste" the Red Cross Knight, or favoured him with grace. From this point onwards grace is the theme of the episode and faith and grace are inextricably linked. This giving of grace is signified in the traditional image of the opening of the eyes to the light of salvation (Acts 26:18) and demonstrates Fidelia's appropriateness as one who leads others towards such salvation.

  18. At I.x.18 Spenser begins his description of the catechetical education offered by Fidelia by noting that Una and the knight are first offered rest and refreshment in the House of Holiness, providing a physical contrast for the spiritual refreshment they are to receive later. He gives praise to the spiritual education offered by the Church with the simple technique of repetition. By repeating "faire" in the context of both Una and the request for education she makes he draws the two together and transfers some of the praise due to Una to the request and vice versa. In this way Spenser indicates the spiritual nature of both Una and the education about to be undertaken by the Red Cross Knight. However, the poet's second use of "faire" also contains an element of ambiguity, which allows for the attribution of the adjective to both Fidelia and the request made by Una. The image can thus be interpreted as either indicating the beauty and goodness, or indeed moral worth of "Fidelia faire," or as a reference to Una's request as "faire" and therefore both moral and worthy. [21] Syntactically the adjective can only be used with one of the nouns, however in terms of imagery or atmosphere it can apply to both.

  19. John Wall interprets the schoolroom setting as indicative of the "education-oriented" and word-oriented institution that was the sixteenth-century Church in England, and extends his observations about the setting to include the House of Holiness as representative of the Anglican Church. [22] However, the introduction of a schoolroom and not a Church as the place of catechetical education may also be a result of Spenser's introduction of a female educator. Women were given a role in the imparting of spiritual education, but were not considered the equal of ministers. Thus Spenser gives legitimacy to Fidelia's role by distancing her from the exclusively male province of Church leadership, by removing her from a Church building.

  20. Spenser's vocabulary when describing the education itself emphasises the spiritual nature of the lesson: "heavenly learning," "words divine," "agraste" [favoured with grace], "celestiall discipline." Wood identifies the terms that Spenser uses to describe her task as adjectives that express both "form and content." [23] In this way the poet is able to commend Fidelia's skill as heavenly, divine, celestial, and thus spiritual, while also indicating the religious nature of her subject itself. In addition, Spenser is not merely discussing heavenly learning or divine words as abstracts, for he defines them specifically as "her heavenly learning" and "her words divine," the possessive pronoun referring explicitly to Fidelia. Faith thus becomes the essential catalyst in the transmission of a worthy spiritual education, a point reiterated in the simple yet powerful way in which Spenser acknowledges Fidelia's agreement to teach the knight. The lack of elaboration in the isolated clause "she granted," and its emphatic placement, combine to create an atmosphere of great emotion, and the reader is influenced by a sense of the importance and gravity of her acquiescence.

  21. Fidelia's book is the Bible and the "celestiall discipline" she teaches is based upon the Scriptures. [24] As the embodiment of Faith educating the knight by means of Scripture, Fidelia becomes a focus of the spiritual education of the Church. Her task echoes that of the author himself, who seeks to educate and motivate his audience to greater morality. Like the poet and the Church minister, Fidelia must delight her audience in order to teach and motivate. The poet expresses this delightfulness in the adjectives which describe both the style and content of her teaching. Fidelia is thus indicative of the "true poet." [25] However, it is also significant that Spenser refers to her transmission of the "heavenly documents" as preaching--his only use of "preach" in The Faerie Queene.

  22. Fidelia's task is to teach the young knight how to "read" the Scriptures.

    And that her sacred Booke, with blood ywrit,
    That none could read, except she did them teach,
    She unto him disclosed every whit,
    And heavenly documents thereout did preach (I.x.19)

    Reading is one of the central motifs of the poem, as the poet attempts to instruct his audience in the way to read and interpret the poem. Spenser's decription of Fidelia's task of teaching the skill of reading links her with his own task while contributing to the creation of the image of the godly literate woman, whose task it was to teach both Scripture and reading to her children. [26] It is also one of the central themes of contemporary Protestant writings, focusing on the power of the Word of God as written and read in the Bible.

  23. One of the poet's most important symbols in the first Book of The Faerie Queene is the image of the book as an object. Not only is this symbol significant in its obvious contribution to the imagery of teaching and education, but it also aids Spenser's commentary on his own text as a source of learning. Throughout Book I Spenser provides his audience with contrasting interpretations of the role of books, presenting types and antitypes of religious books in particular as a means of instruction. The first books to be mentioned in The Faerie Queene are universally negative. The monster Errour spews forth a hideous vomit full of flesh, books and monstrous creatures:

    Therewith she spewed out of her filthy maw
    A floud of poyson horrible and blacke,
    Full of great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw,
    Which stunke so vildly, that it forst him slacke
    His grasping hold, and from her turne him backe:
    Her vomit full of bookes and papers was,
    With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke,
    And creeping sought way in the weedy gras:
    Her filthy parbreake all the place defiled has. (I.i.20)

    Spenser explicitly connects books and papers with error and misinterpretation at this point in Book I, by association with the name of the monster and also through his identification of the "loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke" and are thus unable to read or understand. These books, previously identified as representative of Roman Catholic teachings and documents, defile the ground upon which they fall. [27] Spenser supports this statement with olfactory and visual imagery of defilement and horror, and the reaction of the Red Cross Knight directs the reader towards the appropriate response to such a vituperative display.

  24. This image of the negative power of books, forcing the knight to waver in his purpose, is reiterated in Spenser's next presentation. In his description of the enchanter Archimago Spenser includes the detail of the book he bears: "And by his belt his booke he hanging had" (I.i.29). Although Spenser does not elaborate upon the nature of this book, the traditional interpretation of such a symbol would be that it represents the Bible and therefore contributes to the holiness of the character. Spenser initially supports this interpretation on the part of both his characters and his audience by surrounding the character with other traditional symbols of piety and holiness. The shock effect of his later revelation that Archimago's books are actually works of black magic (I.i.36-37, ii.2) undermines the readers' belief in their own interpretive skills and enhances a dependence upon the author as interpreter of the text.

  25. Having established the image of the book as a negative force Spenser then transforms his own symbol and introduces several examples of books which convey a beneficial effect to his characters. In response to Arthur's gift of a diamond box containing a healing liquor, the Red Cross Knight presents a book identified as the New Testament:

    Which to requite, the Redcrosse knight him gave
    A booke, wherein his Saveours testament
    Was writ with golden letters rich and brave;
    A worke of wondrous grace, and able soules to save. (I.ix.19)

    In contrast to the negative language surrounding Spenser's previous descriptions of book as objects, this passage stresses the positive nature of the book, associating it explicitly with the gift of divine grace as a "worke of wondrous grace" and "his Saveours testament," as well as implicitly through the presence of Arthur. Spenser's epideictic vocabulary commends the book as "rich and brave," while the description of its golden letters gives visual confirmation to such praise. His direct statement of its power to save souls in the alexandrine prepares the reader for the introduction of Fidelia's Bible as Spenser's most significant portrayal of the book as symbol in The Faerie Queene.

  26. The effect of her education upon both the Red Cross Knight and the poem's audience is conveyed by the description of the power at her command:

    And when she list pour out her larger spright,
    She would commaund the hastie Sunne to stay,
    Or backward turn his course from heavens hight;
    Sometimes great hostes of men she could dismay,
    Dry-shod to passe, she parts the flouds in tway;
    And eke huge mountaines from their native seat
    She would commaund, themselves to beare away,
    And throw in raging sea with roaring threat.
    Almightie God her gave such powre, and puissance great. (I.x.20)

    Spenser stresses her authority, repeating the phrase "she would commaund" in his discussion of the power of her words. His use of "commaund" to describe Fidelia's control over the natural elements indicates the form of her power and amplifies the image of the force and strength of words, the poet's own tools. Although the images of faith changing the course of the sun, moving mountains and parting seas are traditional and have their sources in the Bible, Spenser amplifies their impact upon the reader by stressing the unnaturalness of these actions. In his discussion of the sun, he notes that she turns it "backwards," while the mountains are described as being moved from their "native seat." He reiterates the theme of the stanza in the alexandrine, giving two alternative terms for strength: "powre" and "puissance," the positioning of which on either side of the caesura amplifies their meaning. This power is compared with the power of "Almightie God," which he has granted to her. In addition, the alliterative "raging" and "roaring" of the previous line contribute to the atmosphere of intensity and potential, and continue the imagery of the spoken word. The poet also positions the final rhymes of "great" and "threat" so they work together to enhance the atmosphere of noise and might.

  27. One interpretation of Fidelia is that she gains her power from her role as a mere personification of the faith necessary for a Christian education. While some of this is certainly true, I believe she is more than mere personification. All of Spenser's characters have allegorical significance and come to represent particular virtues and vices as the poem progresses. However, his use of personification may be perceived to have a series of different levels. At one end of the scale are the characters like Concord (IV.x.31-35), who are no more than emblematic representations, while at the other end of the scale are his titular knights and some of their ladies. These characters are linked to particular virtues and qualities, but are more complex than mere symbolic representations, displaying contradictions and developing as the text progresses. Fidelia falls between these two extremes. Although she is not so well rounded as Spenser's titular heroes and heroines, she is more than a simple emblematic figure.

  28. Following his confession, purgation and absolution at the hands of the healers of the House of Holiness the knight passes into the care of Charissa, where his spiritual education is broadened to include the virtue of charity or Christian love (I.x.33). Spenser continues the imagery of schooling in his description of Una's request that Charissa "schoole her knight" in "her vertuous rules" (I.x.32), an echo of the request made to Fidelia (I.x.18). Like Fidelia, Charissa delights in her task and imparts that delight to the audience. Spenser begins the stanza with an alliterative play upon "joyous" and "just" which lightens the atmosphere after the sober and tense portrayal of the knight's penance, while emphasising the worth of Charissa's lesson. Spenser himself draws a direct contrast between the cheerfulness and joy of Charissa's teaching and the "torment" of the "sad house of Penance" the knight has just left (I.x.32). Indeed, "joyous" is the theme adjective for Charissa, who rejoices in her children (I.x.31), themselves a "happie brood" (I.x.32), and exhibits friendship and cheerfulness to her guests (I.x.32):

    She was right joyous of her just request,
    And taking by the hand that Faeries sonne,
    Gan him instruct in every good behest,
    Of love, and righteousnesse, and well to donne
    And wrath, and hatred warely to shonne,
    That drew on men God's hatred, and his wrath,
    And many soules in dolours had fordonne:
    In which when him she well instructed hath,
    From thence to heaven she teacheth him the ready path. (I.x.33)

  29. Charissa teaches Christian love and charity, as her name suggests. [28] As the representative of such love she is the antithesis of the hatred and wrath she warns the knight against. Spenser amplifies her message by juxtaposing the opposing virtues and vices in the stanza. His particular listing of "love" and "righteousnesse" and "well to donne" [doing well] indicates their relative importance, while his addition of wrath and hatred to the end of the list provides a shocking contrast that is only relieved by the qualifying phrase "warely to shonne" at the conclusion of the line. Wrath and hatred as vices are themselves then juxtaposed with the divine hatred and wrath they incur. Finally, the poet contrasts Charissa's joy with the "dolours" or sorrows of those who do not heed her lessons.

  30. The Red Cross Knight's spiritual education is then continued under the tutelage of Mercie:

    During which time, in every good behest
    And godly worke of Almes and charitee
    She him instructed with great industree;
    Shortly therein so perfect he became,
    That from the first unto the last degree,
    His mortall life he learned had to frame
    In holy righteousnesse, without rebuke or blame. (I.x.45)

    In contrast to the purely intellectual education provided by Fidelia, both Charissa and Mercie teach the knight the active expression of his faith through good works. As teachers of active displays of faith both Charissa and Mercie are described as having a more physical contact with the Red Cross Knight than Fidelia. Both characters take him by the hand to lead him on the path to righteousness (I.x.33, 35). Their education of the knight is also portrayed as a physical journey--they walk with him towards the mountain of the hermit Contemplation. In contrast to this Fidelia does not move from her schoolroom during her lesson, nor does she touch the knight in any way. Spenser utilises the descriptions of action and the physical contact to enhance his image of education as a journey, a process of movement from one state to another.

  31. Mercie's education of the knight in the active demonstration of his faith and his belonging to the Church community reflects the emphasis on living the Christian life as outlined in the Prayer Book. As part of the catechetical program candidates were not only expected to know the Ten Commandments, but to understand how they were lived by Christians and to enact them in their lives. Spenser's discussion of alms and charity reflects the Church's concern that the members of its congregation know and perform their duty towards their neighbour. [29]

  32. Although the giving of alms and charity may be initially perceived as traditionally Catholic virtues, Spenser takes care to distinguish them from the Roman Catholic doctrines of Good Works and the Treasury of Merits, referring to them as "godly workes." The Protestant Reformers defined the Roman doctrine of Works as a form of barter system, whereby believers could accrue spiritual benefits for themselves and salvation through their performance. They did not deny the need for such Good Works, instead defining their works as outward expressions of faith and a salvation already attained through the gift of God alone, [30] an idea conveyed by Spenser in his labelling of the works as "godly" instead of "good." The use of "godly" also echoes Spenser's earlier description of the duties of the Seven Beadmen who "Did spend their dayes in doing godly thing" (I.x.36).

  33. Following Mercie's lesson about the value of active displaying inward faith and salvation the knight is described as "perfect," a term often linked with the attainment of salvation in both religious and secular literature (I.x.45). [31] Spenser then qualifies this statement with the comment that the Red Cross Knight's life is now "without rebuke or blame," summarising in the alexandrine the result of the tutelage he has received in the House of Holiness and making a direct statement of the knight's role as model for emulation. The caesura, falling between the two descriptions of the knight as both righteous and without blame, doubles the image of his worth. The description of him as righteous echoes his earlier lessons in "righteousnesse" from Charissa (I.x.33), as well as Spenser's introduction of Mercie as the character who will teach him how to save his "righteous soule" (I.x.34). The poet uses the infinitive "to frame" in the previous line in connection with the knight's blameless life, indicating his development of this character as a demonstrative or pictorial representative of virtue. The final rhyme of "frame" and "blame" draws the two ideas together, while the emphatic placement of "blame" as the ultimate word in the stanza indicates its importance as the theme of the stanza.

  34. On a previous occasion in Book I Spenser uses the linguistic sign of the word "blame" to indicate the nature of his Red Cross Knight. He describes the knight as "blest" from blame or free from blame (I.ii.18). The context of this description is also significant in that the knight is engaged in a fight with Sansfoy or faithlessness, which asserts the importance of faithfulness to the development of the knight. Hamilton interprets this phrase to mean that the knight is protected by the shield of faith, or "blest" from injury, defining "blame" as signifying injury or imputation of fault in judicial combat.

  35. Finally, Spenser commends the spiritual education experienced by the knight in the House of Holiness in his indication of the progress of the knight towards an active faith. By the end of I.x.45 the knight has taken over as the subject of the active verbs, and is no longer the passive recipient of education from another source. This stanza is in direct contrast with the previous descriptions of his education under Fidelia (I.x.18-19) and Charissa (I.x.33), during which he was merely the passive object of each verb. In both stanzas Spenser also emphasises the superior role of the educators and the subordinate role of the knight in his use of the verbs "to teach" and "to instruct." On both occasions he places the accusative pronoun (him) between the subject and the verb, advancing the object from its natural position and juxtaposing it with the subject. At the conclusion of his catechetical education in the House of Holiness, the knight is taken to see the hermit Contemplation by Mercie. He reinforces the lessons given to the knight and gives him a view of the reward available to all who are saved--the new Hierusalem (I.x.55-8).

  36. It is significant that throughout Book I of The Faerie Queene, the Red Cross Knight is depicted as a youthful and inexperienced knight, who must prove himself (I.i.3). He is introduced as one who has never born arms: "Yet armes till that time did he never wield" (I.i.1). His youth is again stressed at the House of Holiness in contrast with the "aged syre" who opens the gate (I.x.5) and the antiquity of Caelia. This image of youth in need of education is part of Spenser's creation of an appropriate role for his educating women. For women were seen as an important part of the spiritual educational process for young knights, in much the same way as they were perceived to be appropriate teachers of young children. Spenser makes use of this established tradition to bolster the developing Protestant one. Fidelia and the other women in the House of Holiness do not offer aid and education to the established, older figures [like Arthur and Artegall], nor do they attempt to cross the gender boundary to offer a martial education.

  37. In his descriptions of educating women, particularly in Book I of The Faerie Queene, Spenser seeks to create a role for women in the spiritual life of the English Church. To do so he draws upon imagery from both the religious and chivalric traditions in the absence of an established Protestant one. He also attempts to commend the role chosen by Elizabeth as Supreme Governor of the Church by giving power to his female educators as governors of themselves and spiritual guides to those around them. Their "wise handling and faire governance," restore the knight to wholeness and "a better will," giving him the power to pursue his task as defender of the English Church.


1. See Thomas Becon's Catechism in Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook, Kate Aughterson ed. (London: Routledge, 1995), 175; Patricia Crawford, Women and Religion in England 1500-1720 (London: Routledge, 1993), 56.

2. Philippa Berry, Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen (London: Routledge, 1989); Sheila T. Cavanagh, Wanton Eyes and Chaste Desires: Female Sexuality in The Faerie Queene (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994); Susan Frye, "Engendered violence: Elizabeth, Spenser and the definitions of chastity," in Elizabeth I: the Competition for Representation (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993), 97-148; Julia Walker, "Elizabeth is Britomart is Elizabeh: this Sex which is not won," in Medusa's Mirrors: Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton and the Metamorphosis of the Female Self (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1998), 69-116; Louise Schleiner, Cultural Semiotics, Spenser and the Captive Woman (Bethlehem: Lehigh U, 1995).

3. Michael Van Cleave Alexander, The Growth of English Education 1348-1648: A Social and Cultural History (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990), 67-87; Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford, Women in Early Modern England 1550-1720 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998), 89-91, 157-8.

4. Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus, Half-Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England 1540-1640 (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1985), 82.

5. Richard Mulcaster, Positions Concerning the Training Up of Children (1581), edited by William Barker (Totonto: U of Toronto P, 1994), 169-184.

6. Injunction 29 in Sparrow ed., Injunctions given by the Queen's Majesty, in A Collection of Articles, Injunctions, Canons, Orders, Ordinances, and Constitutions Ecclesiastical: With Other Publick Records of the Church of England Chiefly in the Times of K. Edward VI, Q. Elizabeth, K. James, and K. Charles I, by Anthony Sparrow (London: Printed for Blanch Pawlet at the Bible in Chancery Lane, 1684), 76-77.

7. Crawford, Women and Religion, 69.

8. All references to The Faerie Queene are to John Smith and Ernest de Selincourt eds., Edmund Spenser: Poetical Works (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1912).

9. Andrew Hadfield, "The 'sacred hunger of ambitious minds': Spenser's savage religion," in Edmund Spenser, ed. Andrew Hadfield (London: Longman, 1996), 179.

10. Elizabeth Jocelyn's The mother's legacy to her unborn child, in Renaissance Woman, 183. See also Margaret L King, Women of the Renaissance (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991), 19.

11. An Homily of the state of matrimony, in Certain Sermons or Homilies Appointed to be Read in the Time of Queen Elizabeth of Famous Memory (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1852), 534.

12. Hadfield, 179; John N King, Spenser's Poetry and the Reformation Tradition (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990), 142-7.

13. Peggy Knapp, "'Mannes Governance' and 'Wommannes Conseil,'" in Chaucer and the Social Contest (London: Routledge, 1990), 99-113. She summarises recent scholarship in the notes to this chapter. See also Margaret Hallissy, Clean Maids, True Wives, Steadfast Widows: Chaucer's Women and Medieval Codes of Conduct (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1993).

14. John N Wall, Transformations of the Word: Spenser, Herbert, Vaughan (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1988), 123. He states that Spenser's praise of Elizabeth through his characters was designed to

encourage her to take her own part in this transformation of English society by spelling out for her the kind of behaviour that would further that end in terms of a rhetorical scheme that would allow her to shape her behaviour according to those models without having to admit that she had not already been doing so.

15. Becon, Catechism, in Renaissance Woman, 175.

16. D Douglas Waters, Duessa as Theological Satire (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1970), 106-107. See also the contrast with Archimago and his beads (I.x.30).

17. Christopher Haigh, "The Church of England, the Catholics and the People," in Christopher Haigh ed., The Reign of Elizabeth I (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985), 196.

18. See A. C. Hamilton's marginal note to I.x.12 in his edition of The Faerie Queene (London: Longman, 1977).

19. Darryl J. Gless, Interpretation and Theology in Spenser (Cambridge: Cambridge UP), 153, compares Fidelia to Una, and both of them to the illumined angels of Revelation, who were themselves interpreted as symbols for Christ himself. He cites Henry Bullinger's commentary on Revelation 10:1 from A Hundred Sermons upon the Apocalypse of Jesu Christ, translated by J. Daus (London, 1561), V7v.

20. For further discussion of Una as the morning star and its divine allusions see Hamilton's note to I.xii.21. He cites Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York: Harper and Row, 1939, 1962), 83f.

An alternative interpretation of the importance of sun imagery in Elizabethan depictions of women may be found in Philippa Berry's "Rewriting chastity: representations of the unmarried queen by Chapman, Shakespeare, Raleigh, and Spenser," in Of Chastity and Power, 134-5. Gless, Interpretation and Theology, 127, discusses Spenser's use of sun imagery to indicate Arthur's relationship with the divine.

21. The alliteration of "Fidelia faire" also draws the two words together, while the pleasant sound created by the repetition of the soft fricative enhances the atmosphere of tranquillity.

22. Wall, Transformations of the Word, 113.

23. Rufus Wood, Metaphor and Belief in The Faerie Queene (London: Macmillan, 1997), 66.

24. Spenser initially refers to it as a book: "both signd and seald with blood, / Wherein darke things were to writ, hard to be understood" (I.x.13).

25. Wood, 67.

26. Crawford, Women and Religion, 87.

Women served the Lord by instructing their children in Christianity. If Scripture presented the paradigm for the godly life, it still required interpretation. Literate godly women concentrated on catechising their children and teaching them to read.

27. Hamilton cites Revelation 16.13 and the glosses to this passage in the Geneva Bible as the source of this interpretation.

28. Spenser distinguishes between this love and the potentially lustful nature of earthly love, emphasising the chaste nature of Charissa and stating explicitly her loathing of "Cupids wanton snare" (I.x.30).

29. "Confirmation," 213. John N. King, "Sacrament," in The Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. A.C. Hamilton (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990), 624, defines Christian fellowship as active participation in Christian service and deeds of active charity.

30. Spenser himself echoes this doctrine in his ordering of the three sisters Fidelia, Speranza and Charissa. Although charity was deemed to be the chief virtue of the three, Spenser's placement of Faith as the eldest emphasises the idea of faith preceding good works. See Hamilton's note to I.x.4.

31. Compare the Knight of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, who is described as a "parfit gentil knight" following a description of his knightly exploits in the service of his faith (General Prologue 72). This description gives praise to the Knight's nobility and worth, while the proximity of Chaucer's list of his Christian martial activities conveys a sense of the contribution of these activities to his attainment of such perfection and gentility. Terry Jones' controversial interpretation of this list as actually indicative of the Knight's less than perfect career as a mercenary, rather than a soldier of God , gives an added dimension to Spenser's description of his knight as "perfect" and worthy, yet untried and innocent (I.i.1). See Terry Jones, Chaucer's Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary, revised edition (London: Methuen, 1985), 95-111.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).