Gerard Kilroy. Edmund Campion: Memory and Transcription. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005. xii+261pp. ISBN 0 7546 5255 6.

Jason Scott-Warren
University of Cambridge

Scott-Warren, Jason. "Review of Gerard Kilroy, Edmund Campion: Memory and Transcription." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.2 (September, 2006) 13.1-6<URL:>.

  1. After the New Historicism, the New Catholicism. Ten years ago, few could have foreseen this turn in early modern literary studies, although it was something of a commonplace that New Historicist critics neglected religion, viewing it as politics in another guise. But now, one by one, all the great early modern authors are being outed as Catholic or crypto-Catholic, their writings forged in the fiery crucible of religious persecution. Shakespeare is the key scalp; his plays are either tellingly mysterious (Richard Wilson) or transparently coded (Clare Asquith). Donne was already in the bag, his poems (in John Carey's prescient analysis) repeatedly deliquescing into Catholic sentiment, even where they appear to be satirizing the Old Religion. Ben Jonson's recusancy is too well known to warrant much discussion; more surprising is the case of Sir Philip Sidney, whose status as a Protestant icon has been severely compromised by the revelation (by Katherine Duncan-Jones) that he was in fact a Catholic. It cannot be long before critics turn to reconsider Spenser and Milton, lukewarm Protestants both. Energized by the writings of Christopher Haigh and Eamon Duffy -- the latter's Stripping of the Altars, with its rosy picture of late medieval piety, is the movement's Bible -- New Catholicism looks set to take the world by storm.

  2. And it has friends in high places. The book under review comes with fulsome blurbs from Stephen Greenblatt and Michael Wood, Shakespearean biographers whose own projects have been enriched by their engagements with early modern Catholicism. The book also received an extraordinary piece of free publicity in the pages of a British newspaper, The Guardian, where John Sutherland praised it as a monograph written outside the academy, with its relentless pressure to publish, by a schoolteacher for whom it was 'a labour (an extremely laborious labour) of love'. Such an idea cannot survive an acquaintance with the book itself. Far from being a 'labour of love', Kilroy's Edmund Campion turns out to be an entirely partisan work, driven by the author's personal religious convictions or by some other very strong form of attachment to the Catholic faith.

  3. The book is somewhat amorphously organized, but its main focus is on texts by and about Campion and the way in which his legacy circulated in the decades after his death. Kilroy presents a simplified vision of a world in which Catholicism stands for everything humane and historically rooted, while Protestantism is a superficial product imposed on an unwilling nation by propaganda, persecution and torture. The story of Campion's texts becomes the story of Catholicism's struggle for survival. Under Elizabeth, 'the auncient faith of Christianitie, and onlie religion of our forefathers in England' (p. 24) was forced to circulate in secret manuscripts-the latter supposedly written on 'Catholic paper' that buries its confessional identity in its watermarks. Kilroy focuses in particular on two men -- Sir Thomas Tresham and Sir John Harington -- who 'dedicated their lives to transcribing Campion's message' (18).

  4. The strongest passages in the book are those that directly concern Campion and his legacy. In particular, Kilroy offers an edition, translation and discussion of Campion's Latin mini-epic on the tribulations of the early church -- effectively a 'poetic apologia for the Papacy' (51) -- and he also gives us a productive account of the circulation of a poem about Campion, 'Why doe I use my paper ynke and pen', ascribed to Henry Walpole of Gray's Inn. Less impressive is the book's treatment of Tresham and of Harington. In chapter 5 it is claimed that Tresham's decision not to tell the authorities whether or not he had harboured Campion was 'the defining moment in Tresham's life' (123); since we are told little else about that life, it is impossible to assess the validity of this statement. The rest of the chapter consists of an undignified attempt to redeem Campion from the charge that he broke down under torture (which, even were it true, would be no charge at all), and an unrelated discussion of the eucharistic symbolism of Tresham's celebrated buildings. Meanwhile Harington's name surfaces so frequently, and with so much repetition of material, that one might be fooled into thinking that his interest in Campion was indeed defining. The evidence in fact consists of a handful of incidents and references. None of them is insignificant, but taken together they suggest that Harington devoted a rather small amount of his life to the memory of Campion.

  5. There are so many things to object to in Kilroy's dealings with Harington that a short review cannot begin to enumerate them. Setting aside all the small implausibilities and errors of detail, two major objections remain. First, this account drastically over-simplifies Harington's confessional complexion, generally ignoring the first and last parts of his self-description as a 'protesting Catholique Puritan' and insinuating that he was 'essentially' (like all his fellow countrymen) a Catholic. Second, it misjudges the tone of Harington's writings, imbuing them with a self-effacing recusant piety that they nowhere display; witness Kilroy's description of the forty religious epigrams that he transcribes in an appendix as 'four sorrowful mysteries' (pp. 103, 107), or his attempt to contextualize the epigram 'Of a fellow judgd to lose his Eares' (p. 101) in relation to the sentencing of Thomas Pounde in 1604. The harsh triviality of that poem confounds the critic's desire to excavate a compassionate subtext.

  6. Occasionally there are moments when Kilroy lifts the blinkers and sees beyond his biases, as for example when he observes that 'we need a more subtle nomenclature for confessional groups' in this period (66). Literary studies have much to gain from an informed understanding of the complex religious terrain of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But those who explore the Catholic elements of early modern writing need a degree of scholarship that can at least match their passion.

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