Stephen Hamrick, The Catholic Imaginary and
the Cults of Elizabeth, 1558-1582. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. vii+232pp.
ISBN 978 0 7546 6588 5.
Jonathan Wright. “Review of Stephen Hamrick, The Catholic Imaginary and the Cults of Elizabeth, 1558-1582." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.2 (2010-11): 9.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-2/revhamr.htm>
- The ‘imaginary’ of the title refers to a core of Roman Catholic
ideas, practices, rituals, tropes and images that, by Hamrick’s account, lost
little of their cultural power during the reign of Elizabeth I. The faith they
underpinned may have been outlawed, but this did not prevent writers of all
confessional varieties from deploying them. This work of cultural appropriation
allowed the subjects of Hamrick’s book (a handsome handful of Petrarchan poets)
to praise and scold the queen and her courtiers, to comment (albeit in coded
ways) on contemporary events, and to play a significant role in the creation of
the cults and anti-cults which grew up around Elizabeth. Hamrick occasionally
over-eggs his thesis, seeing cogency and clear authorial intent where it is
hard to descry. That said, his cardinal point is robust. Our appreciation of
Reformation Petrarchanism is much enhanced by a close study of its exploitation
of Catholic imagery and constructs.
- Hamrick rightly sees the opening years of Elizabeth’s reign as an uncertain period: no one was quite sure which way the doctrinal wind was blowing. There were some telling hints, however. Hamrick recounts three of them: the famous episode in 1558 when Elizabeth walked out of a religious service when, against explicit instructions, the host was elevated; the parodic entertainments of Twelfth-night 1559 when, among other spectacles, Catholic priests were portrayed as asses, crows and wolves; and the January 1559 attack on a statue of Thomas Becket. Hamrick recruits these incidents as early examples of exploitation of the Catholic imaginary. It might be more sensible to categorize them as decidedly unsubtle instances of anti-Catholic sentiment: there is no obvious reason to apply added layers of interpretation. Also, Hamrick’s attempt to re-evaluate the host-elevating debacle does not succeed. Traditionally, the episode has been seen as an example of Elizabeth indulging in a fit of pique: an unpremeditated action which caused considerable uproar and which Elizabeth probably regretted. Hamrick’s suggestion that Elizabeth intended to provoke consternation does not quite wash.
- Hamrick is on firmer ground when he turns to Barnabe
Googe and his 1563 Eclogues, Epitaphes, and Sonnets. He makes a
compelling case that this neglected work (which included one of the first Elizabethan
outings of the Petrarchan image of the wanton Venus) was profoundly influenced
by the political events of the 1560s, not least the burning issue of whom (if
anyone) Elizabeth ought to marry. Googe found subtle ways to comment upon this
question (he was dead-set against any marriage to Robert Dudley) and also
played with the theme of the Catholic imaginary (including a rejection of the
prevailing courtly aesthetic encapsulated by the extravagant celebrations of
the Order of the Garter) to pour scorn on Elizabeth’s courtiers: people, in
Googe’s eyes, mired in pride. Comparing their peacock antics to the illustrious
deeds of patriarchs like Daniel, Moses and Elias was a hackneyed but efficient
- By the early 1570s a concatenation of events — Mary
Stuart’s arrival in England in 1568, the Northern Rebellion of 1569, the papal
excommunication, the Ridolfi Plot — had brought concerns about Catholicism to
fever pitch in some circles. It had never been more urgent to hold forth on how
England ought to be governed. Here, the irony at the heart of Hamrick’s book
comes into the sharpest focus. In The Delectable Historie of the Sundrie
Adventures Passed by Dan Bartholomew of Bathe George Gascoigne strenuously
supported the Queen’s ability to define her own and her country’s destiny. This
was a much-needed counterblast to those who questioned the rectitude of
granting Elizabeth too much political agency. The curious thing about
Gascoigne’s work is that, according to Hamrick, it shamelessly and unexpectedly
exploits Catholic imagery. The queen is represented as a textbook Petrarchan
mistress, Ferenda Natura, and her virtues and values are highlighted by
reference to an astonishing range of Catholic notions and behaviours. The
martyred saint, the pious devotee, the mystery play tradition, burial rituals,
penance and confession are all pressed into service. As Hamrick argues,
“virtually all forms of contemporary [Catholic] practice” (128) are deployed.
Hamrick sometimes gets carried away by his theme. There is surely exaggeration
in suggesting that “much as Catholic piety instructed devotees… to raise their
hands in adoration of the elevated Host during the Mass, Bartholomew adores
Ferenda-Elizabeth as a substitute Host in his own Petrarchan church.” (114)
Still, the basic point remains intact: the Catholic imaginary could be put to
some staggeringly unexpected uses.
- Hamrick ends with an analysis of Thomas Watson’s 1582
Hekatompathia or Passionate Century of Love. Here, we cross to the other
side of the confessional aisle and see how someone who may nor may not have
been a Catholic but certainly had lots of Catholic friends and sponsors
(Watson) defended someone with clear Catholic leanings (Edward de Vere, earl of
Oxford) from charges of disloyalty. Needless to say, the Catholic imaginary,
filtered through the wit and eroticism of Petrarchanism, came into its own in
such an endeavour. As such this is the least surprising but also the most
secure section of Hamrick’s book.
- Hamrick is to be credited for his ingenuity and his
painstaking readings of some neglected Elizabethan texts. He expands our
understanding of the era’s poetry and wisely cautions us against seeing
references to Catholicism as nothing more than ornamentation. The ground-note
of his thesis ought to resonate through all subsequent scholarship: even those
who wrote anti-Catholic verse deployed elements of the Catholic imaginary and
“ironically participated in transferring Catholic sensibilities to the cults of
Elizabeth” (189). That is an excellent point. It is important to voice a few
reservations, however. First and foremost, it is crucial to draw a distinction
between the Catholic imaginary (to deploy the author’s phrase) and a broader,
more inclusive Christian imaginary, and this is something that Hamrick often
fails to do. When it comes to shibboleths like transubstantiation there is no
doubting the Catholic emphasis but a whole host of orthodoxies, habits and
tropes (martyrdom, piety, ritual gestures, for instance) straddled the
confessional divide, especially in a place like Elizabethan England where
neatly defined religious identities were still being hammered out. There are
times when one wonders whether Hamrick’s Catholic imaginary is quite so
exclusively Catholic as he suggests.
- A final caveat concerns methodology. Hamrick rightly
takes literary scholars to task for behaving in ahistorical ways and ignoring
the context in which texts were written. This is a sin that Hamrick avoids. He
makes great efforts to provide a historical backdrop and one of the key tasks
of his book is to demonstrate how seemingly harmless flights of poetic fancy
could be freighted with meaningful social, religious and political commentary.
On the other hand, Hamrick occasionally replaces one hermeneutic gaffe with
another. There is a clear anthropological flavour to these pages and it is not always
beneficial. Let’s return to Hamrick’s analysis of Elizabeth storming out when
the Host was elevated. “Viewed through the lens of cultural anthropology”
rather than “religiopolitical [sic] history” the gesture seems to “fulfil the
first phase of ‘separation’ characteristic of liminal states” (24). Call me
old-fashioned, but I sustain an affection for the exacting standards of
“religiopolitical” history (evidence and all that), especially when confronting
this history of religion and politics.
- These caveats aside, Hamrick’s book is bold, fluent and
well-crafted. It opens up new vistas of textual investigation and it ought to
be read by every student of the period’s literature.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).