Ronald Corthell, Frances Dolan, Christopher Highley, and Arthur Marotti, eds. Catholic Culture in Early Modern England. Notre Dame:  U of Notre Dame P, 2007.  324pp.  ISBN 9780268022945.


Stephen Hamrick
Minnesota State University, Moorhead

Hamrick, Stephen.“Review of Ronald Corthell, Frances Dolan, Christopher Highley, and Arthur Marotti, eds. Catholic Culture in Early Modern England.". Early Modern Literary Studies 15.2 (2010-11): 5.1-16 <URL:>


  1. The editors of this innovative collection provide an important contribution to the ever-expanding study of early modern Catholic culture, and the text should become essential reading for students and scholars alike.  Markedly extending papers presented at the conference “Early Modern English Catholic Culture” held at the Chicago Newberry Library (2002), these eleven essays and the richly dense introduction provide provocative interventions into Reformation historiography, cultural studies, women’s studies, book culture, literary critique, and material culture—including architecture and needlework.  As such, the authors lay the necessary groundwork for new research directions.  As an attendee at the 2002 conference, this reviewer notes positively the fruitful expansion of the essays.   

  2. As a whole, the text provides overwhelming evidence of a highly complex recusant Catholic culture surviving in England.  Engaging a broad range of critical perspectives, the collection offers a particularly strong reconstruction of both the many essential religious roles of highly educated Catholic women and the multiple international Catholic networks enjoyed and engaged by English recusants at home and in exile.  An invaluable introduction provides a dense overview of contemporary Catholic historiography that outlines current academic thinking on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Catholic culture.  The following overview provides only an outline of this highly valuable text. 

  3. Peter Davidson’s “Recusant Catholic Spaces in Early Modern England” markedly expands our understanding of Catholic “spaces” beyond priest holes and hidden chapels.  Uncovering the evidence of a demonstrable “double significance” in places and inscriptions connected to English recusants, Davidson suggests that the religious coding of spaces resulted from a desire to witness the Catholic faith and/or to express a rejection of the legal Church of England.  Building upon an analysis of devotional manuals, Ignation meditative texts, emblem books, and the ars memorativa, Davidson establishes that English Catholics deployed semiotic elements of an established Counterreformation tradition to express a range of spiritual, religious, and political beliefs.  Davidson’s article serves as an important call, as he indicates, for further research into such Catholic recusant spaces.

  4. In “Women Catholics and Latin Culture,” Jane Stevenson revises our understanding of female pieties, arguing successfully that Catholics, connected to a broad international Latinate culture,  remained as “language conscious” as Protestant religionists have traditionally been described.  By focusing closely on Latin culture, Stevenson offers an important critique of prevailing historiography focused on Protestantism as the word-based piety.  In this indispensible contribution to our understanding of gender and literacy, Stevenson extends growing recognition of the multiple ways that recusants maintained connections with the Catholic Church.      

  5. Focusing upon the incredibly detailed embroidery of Catholic clerical vestments, Sophie Holroyd further establishes the active role of female recusants in defining and directing Catholic worship in Protestant England.  Her “‘Rich Embrodered Churchstuffe’:  The Vestments of Helena Wintour” establishes that the miraculously surviving embroidered garments serve both as pious decoration and as devotional structures in themselves.  Aiding in worship, the embroidered images also represent Wintour’s devotion to the Virgin Mary.

  6. Synthesizing Ignatius Loyola’s Jesuit meditative exercises and the symbolism of Henry Hawkins emblem book, Partheneia Sacra (1633), Wintour creates a “performative surface” upon which viewers receive instruction in the emblematic signification of the meditative images.  Undermining early modern Protestant and modern historiographical descriptions of Catholicism as linguistically bereft, Holroyd establishes that the embroidered clerical vestments enact a subtle linguistic and symbolic influence over the performance of the Mass.

  7. In an Althusserian tour de force, Gary Kuchar reconstructs the Christian and Classical discourses that shape a complex recusant subjectivity in late sixteenth-century England.  Kuchar provides an insightful reading in “Gender and Recusant Melancholia in Robert Southwell’s Mary Magdalene’s Funeral Tears.”  Funeral Tears works to form the “ideal recusant subject” through the sophisticated adaptation of the practice of imitatio Magdalenia for the unique experience of English recusants. 

  8. Kuchar demonstrates that Southwell negotiates a fraught devotional politics in which women gain and exert politico-religious power in the face of multiply inflected absences: of (dead) husbands, priests, Christ, and (often for long periods) experience of the Mass.  In both Funeral Tears and his poetry, Southwell works to mitigate a recusant sense of powerlessness by transforming loss and absence (like melancholia), allegorically figured in the absence of Christ from the tomb and Magdalene’s sorrow and transformation. 

  9. Heather Wolfe further extends our understanding of early modern Catholic women by reconstructing the prodigious output of “Dame Barbara Constable: Catholic Antiquarian, Advisor, and Closet Missionary.”   Cloistered in her monastery, Our Lady of Consolation, Cambrai, Constable wrote at least eleven original works, transcribed twenty-five devotional texts, and provided a range of texts to nuns, monks, priests, leaders, laypeople, and her family.  Focusing closely on traditional monastic meditative texts, part of the lectio divina, Constable translated the works of Augustine Baker and others, providing a broad range of spiritual, catechistical, and liturgical texts.  Wolfe recovers Constable’s surprisingly widespread and very active network of readers or “clients,” for whom she tailored specific collections of thematically arranged materials. 

  10. Rather than simply translating materials, Constable provided a nuanced paratextual apparatus to the works she provided, conveying both an interpretive hermeneutic as well as pointed advice or guidance to other cloistered individuals, their leaders, and others.  Wolfe’s essay recovers the important work of one English nun, demonstrating the truly international nature of early modern Catholicism. 

  11. In “‘Now I ame a Catholique’:  William Alabaster and the Early Modern Catholic Conversion Narrative,” Molly Murray rewrites received notions of religious conversion, showing that the complexity of Catholic conversion has been elided by reading biases that ignored the existence of Catholic conversion writing.  Recovering evidence that undermines monolithic accounts of conversion as Protestant, anti-formalist, and completely internalized, Murray demonstrates that Catholic conversion narratives were influenced by the narrative forms of Paul, Augustine, and others.  Rather than being hagiographic and/or polemical, Catholic autobiographical or life-writing situates conversion within the act of reading and within the context of human institutions and families.  For Catholics like William Alabaster, internally dramatic conversion comes about in response to “literary inspiration.”  Murray’s careful scholarship recovers the Catholic community’s self-awareness of multiple forms of Catholic identity and rejects simplistic reductions that erase the internal and textual nature of Catholic experience.

  12. In “Father John Gerard’s Object Lessons:  Relics and Devotional Objects in Autobiography of a Hunted Priest,” Anne Myers reconstructs the complex community of Catholic recusant devotion created in and through the circulation of relics and other devotional objects.  Writing for future priests embarking upon the mission to reconvert England, Gerard uses stories of devotion to represent more accurately the survival and robust health of the Catholic community in England.  Myers demonstrates that Gerard’s focus remains people-centred rather than on the miraculous nature of devotional objects, writing that “the circulation of a relic both creates and performs the religious and personal relationships among members of the community.”  Myers provides a superbly contextualized and valuable reading of devotional practices that function to preserve Catholic community. 

  13. Mark Netzloff’s “The English Colleges and the English Nation:  Allen, Persons, Verstegan, and Diasporic Nationalism,” reconsiders the Catholic role in defining and redefining the contested meaning of the English nation, rejecting the modern historiographical marginalization of Catholic discourses.  Reconstructing the “travelling culture” that helps to constitute Catholicism, Netzloff’s focuses on the “long-distance nationalism.” provides a corrective to limited notions of English Catholicism.  Influenced by post-colonial theories of diaspora, Netzloff observes a transition in Catholic attitudes towards the nation, which shift from a cosmopolitan view to one in which an essentialized racial core determines identity.  Although the article provides compelling readings, the analysis would have benefited from a clearer establishment and tracing of the diachronic change asserted in the transition from cosmopolitan to ethnic notions of Catholic identity. 

  14. Catherine Sanok’s “The Lives of Women Saints of Our Contrie of England:  Gender and Nationalism in Recusant Hagiography,” also engages Catholic recusant writing that fashions the English nation.  Adapting gender and feminist theories, Sanok counters previous scholarship that has focused solely on masculine representations of nationhood, offering a gender-inclusive analysis of Catholics writing the early modern nation.   As Sanok aptly indicates, “the recusant legendary, then, imagines the continuity of English Catholic identity in both a topography configured by Christian martyrs and the imitation of their exemplary ideal.”  Through the imitation of a martyr’s female identity, recusant men, as Sanok demonstrates, maintain a distinctly English Catholicism historically connected to its past. 

  15. In “Anthony Munday’s Translation of Iberian Chivalric Romances: Palmerin of England, Part I,” Donna Hamilton provides a much needed correction to the critical practice of reading English romances, especially those of Sidney, Spenser, and Wroth, without a necessary recognition that these Protestant texts competed with Iberian romances.  As “foreign” texts imported to England and published at key political moments, these texts provide Catholic worldviews as valid alternatives to the dominant discourses reified by Protestant romance.

  16. As Hamilton finds, Munday’s translations provide readers with a worldview that retains and recreates a broader European Catholic context within which England and English Catholics understand their lives and the politics of the nation.  In translating such texts without editing them to adhere to English religio-political dictates, Munday engages in, as Hamilton usefully identifies, a “preservationist” movement, which often forwards “Romanist” or Catholic viewpoints.  In brief, Hamilton recovers a Catholic public sphere that provided viable alternatives to those forwarded by the English crown. 


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© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).