1590s London: Charting a Course Through Late Tudor Culture

Ty Buckman

Wittenberg University

While conducting research for my dissertation on Spenser’s Faerie Queene, I became fascinated by the confluence of goings on in London in the year 1579. Because our academic institutions and their disciplinary structures tend to unravel the fabric of history into individual threads, students of the period are apt not to notice, for example, that at roughly the same time that John Stubbs’s right hand was chopped off on a scaffold in London for offering unwelcome marriage advice to the young Queen Elizabeth, a recent Cambridge graduate with poetic aspirations and a hand in Protestant literary causes was in London as well in the service of the Earl of Leicester. Spenser was soon after on his way to Ireland as secretary to Lord Grey, but it seems likely that he brought to his new home and his ambitious poetic project the lesson that Elizabeth had used the unfortunate Stubbs to convey: displeasing one’s royal reader was a dangerous mistake. By reading Spenser and his work with particular chronological and geographic coordinates in mind – in this case the year 1579 in London – for a moment at least the artificiality of the dividing line between history and literature is illuminatingly revealed. As a graduate student, I fully expected that I would share such moments of recognition with my students by having them read beyond the narrow canon of Renaissance literature and across the literary/non-literary divide. I imagined British survey courses replete with little known authors and fascinating historical detail and topics courses inspired by the latest scholarship in my period. While my ideas for bridging the gulf between my research and teaching appeared practical to me at the time, when I later began to design my own courses in earnest, I quietly put most of them aside. There was always too much to cover in too little time, and when it came time to assemble a syllabus, I was not sure how much of Bentley’s Monument of Matrones a responsible professor could include in an undergraduate course. Thus my plans for a ‘thick’ Renaissance literature course remained shelved until last year, when some of the new cultural studies scholarship and the profusion of online texts and ephemera from the period led me to design an experimental undergraduate English seminar entitled ‘Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture: 1590s London.’ This essay is based largely on my experience teaching the 1590s London course for the first time last spring.

I. 1590s London

My seminar was devoted to the study of a single decade in English cultural history, that decade in which Shakespeare first found his powers as a playwright and Spenser produced his Faerie Queene, but a decade also haunted by Marlowe’s and Sidney’s recent and tragic deaths. In addition to its literary credentials (C. S. Lewis famously located the ‘golden period’ of English Renaissance literature here (Lewis 1954: 318-23)), the 1590s also saw the cresting and gradual dissipation of Elizabeth’s political powers, the continued awakening of England’s imperial ambitions, London’s inexorable emergence as an international centre of commerce and culture, and sporadic but ominous foreshadowings of the religious and political conflicts that would shape the next century. Merely to assert the decade’s importance, however, does little to justify limiting a course to the ten years in question: why not teach the 1590s and its proximate decades?

I have for several years now reflected upon David Lee Miller’s remark in Approaches to Teaching Spenser’s Faerie Queene that his chief pedagogical advice regarding this most proliferating of English poems is, ‘Do less, and do more with it’ (Miller 1994: 37). Miller’s dictum is, of course, very apt for a poem with the allegorical complexity of The Faerie Queene, a poem that poses such challenges to the uninitiated contemporary reader that there may be no viable alternative to increasing the magnification of the pedagogical lens and focusing on ever smaller segments of text. This approach also recognizes the simple fact that there is more to say now about the poem from many more critical points of view than there was fifty or even twenty five years ago. If we concede the efficacy of depth over breadth in regard to Spenser’s poem, however, perhaps it is only a matter of time before we begin to ask the same questions of teaching the period in which the poem was written.

I teach at a liberal arts college that does not offer graduate degrees in my field. As a result, a very large majority of my students will encounter early modern English literature in only two courses: a British literature survey course based on the ubiquitous first volume of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, and a topics course such as my Renaissance literature course. Given these circumstances, my first pedagogical impulse is to introduce the students to as diverse a group of writers and works from the broadest chronological span possible and, with whatever time is left, encourage them to study one or two subjects in greater detail. What is generally sacrificed in this approach, of course, is a sense of cultural and historical context; students encounter the period through a sampling of the single register of its literary writings. In designing my 1590s London course I chose to focus on one decade to ‘do more with less’ chronologically. I wanted students to use the decade of the 1590s in London as a laboratory in which to explore the relationship of history and art (lived experience and aesthetic production), to gain a sense of both the past’s great distance from us (its essential otherness) and its formative relation to the present (its kinship with us), and to participate in the recovery and presentation of part of that past through the collaborative editing of an archival text. The only way to pursue these aims coherently seemed to be to narrow the chronological range. Once that decision was made, the 1590s were an obvious choice.

II. The Tillyard/Orlin Dialectic

I opened the semester with a dialectic intended to show my students some of the prior questions an instructor must answer, implicitly or explicitly, before beginning to construct a ‘literature’ course. Toward this end, the first text we read was E. M. W. Tillyard’s slender war-horse The Elizabethan World Picture. Published in 1941 and scarcely a hundred pages long, Tillyard’s book promises to identify and catalogue the underlying structure of the Elizabethan worldview, as his preface states: ‘The province of this book is some of the notions about the world and man which were quite taken for granted by the ordinary educated Elizabethan; the utter commonplaces too familiar for the poets to make detailed use of except in explicitly didactic passages’ (Tillyard 1941: vii). Although he identifies three figures for ‘universal order’ in the period -- ‘a chain, a series of corresponding planes, and a dance’ (Tillyard 1941: 25) – the bulk of his text is devoted to elucidating the well known ‘great chain of being’ which, he argues, the Elizabethans inherited from their medieval forebears. Throughout The Elizabethan World Picture, Tillyard’s method is to sketch his themes by example and summary, pulling together passages from disparate sources to construct (or reconstruct) what his typical Elizabethan thought of the world.

Alert readers will notice within the first few chapters that this ‘world picture’ is composed almost exclusively of material from literary sources. There is a certain logic in Tillyard’s decision to privilege literary evidence over all of the other possible sources of information about Elizabethan beliefs, as the interest of the ‘ordinary reader’ (Tillyard 1941: viii) for whom he writes lies, presumably, with the poets and dramatists of the period, not with its merchants and labourers and widows, or their homes, diet, fashion, or marriage customs. As the book jacket promises, Tillyard’s pithy study aims to be ‘an indispensable companion for readers of the great writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – Shakespeare and the Elizabethan dramatists, Donne and Milton, among many others’ (Tillyard 1941). Tillyard was an English professor writing for readers of English literature, and the questions that he asks of Elizabethan and Jacobean culture no less than the answers he includes in his book are determined more by his familiarity with the Shakespeare canon than by the particular lineaments of the topics he sets out to investigate. In this respect, Tillyard’s work is consistent with the great majority of twentieth-century literary criticism. Even the New Historicism, embarrassed by the implicit hierarchies and slipshod treatment of ‘history’ in works like Tillyard’s, found it necessary to justify its discoveries by linking them, however obliquely, with a canonical text. It was, after all, a brief discussion of Macbeth at the beginning or end of a New Historicist article that kept twenty pages of commentary on Tudor witch trials in the realm of English ‘literary criticism’ at all.

After we finished Tillyard, and after only a cursory discussion of his work, we launched into Lena Cowen Orlin’s collection of essays, Material London, Ca. 1600, a recent addition to the University of Pennsylvania Press’s ‘New Cultural Studies’ series. I assigned several essays from the volume and encouraged the students to read others that looked interesting to them. What they discovered in Orlin’s collection was cultural investigation for its own sake – a cutting of the ever longer and thinner cord that tied the quotidian to the literary, that used the privileged position of the latter to justify the detailed examination of the former. Orlin’s introduction makes clear that her contributors’ neglect of Shakespeare and even the monarchs under which he lived is not accidental: ‘These virtual non-appearances constitute one of the symptoms of the volume’s revisionist nature, as the stories that have long dominated London’s theatrical and political annals give ground to other ways of making meaning in our historical narratives’ (Orlin 2000: 6). Meaning is made in the essays by such means as the examination of shared cesspits, an overview of period architectural practices, speculation about London’s vagrants, and a number of detailed analyses of sumptuary laws and fashion in the period, to list just a few of the eclectic volume’s topics.

After reading Tillyard’s and Orlin’s works, we discussed the differences in their approaches and objectives. I explained that Orlin’s model was not, ultimately, one that I had chosen to follow that semester; in designing the course it seemed disingenuous to choose the 1590s for the richness of its literary output and then craft a syllabus that ignored that literature. My reason for choosing a single decade was to allow for greater attention to historical and cultural context, to help students to find resonance between the works they were reading, and also between those works and the culture in which they were written. My resolution of the Tillyard/Orlin dialectic, then, favored the New Historicist compromise. We would not study 1590s English culture for its own sake, but as it reflected upon and was expressed primarily through written works that had become recognized as ‘literature.’ Thus, for example, we could make use of Gail Kern Paster’s fascinating examination in Material London of purgative practices in early modern medicine without limiting ourselves – as she had done – to the ‘purely’ historical. In fact, the decision of most of the essayists in the volume not to explore the literary implications of their various discoveries and hypotheses made the collection especially useful when it came time for students to write their papers for the course, as I’ll explain in detail in section IV below.

III. Encyclopedia Elizabethana

My original reason for grounding the course in the 1590s was that this decade saw the publication of both installments of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. But as I set out to make extensive use of the poem in the design of the course, I immediately confronted some questions: In what sense can a poem deliberately set in Faery Land serve as an introduction to late Tudor culture? How can The Faerie Queene provide structure to a course on 1590s London when Spenser spent most of the decade (until shortly before the end of his life) in Ireland as an English colonist and government official? Given the Tillyard/Orlin dialectic described above, what is the poem’s relation, if any, to actual material culture? At first glance, these questions would seem to suggest the unsuitability of Spenser’s poem for the task I had in mind, and they are not idle. Greenwood Press recently published a volume entitled Daily Life in Elizabethan England which includes a description of the typical dining habits of the period, the official and unofficial names for denominations of its weights and measures and currencies, illustrations of a typical suit of armour, and so on. While it is conceivable that such information could shed light upon certain passages of The Faerie Queene, this illumination only works in one direction: no one would consult the poem to find out what sorts of shoes Elizabethans wore. In his contribution to Orlin’s collection, Alan Sinfield (whose sympathies lie with ‘historical materialism’) observes that the modifier ‘material’ in the phrase ‘Material London’ leads to a focus on ‘the thinginess of the city,’ that is, ‘attention to clothes, pots and pans, needles and pins, and to books and manuscripts as objects’ (Sinfield 2000: 75). Any ‘thinginess’ we find in Spenser’s poem is incidental to his project; instead of providing the reader with the minutiae and stuff of human experience, The Faerie Queene offers a way of organizing that human experience into a (more or less) coherent whole. In fact, I believe that it is precisely this boldness in condensing and prioritizing heterogeneous aspects of Elizabethan society that makes the poem indispensable as a guide to late Tudor culture.

With this in mind, I organized the course into three units, based on thematic renderings of the first three books of the poem. For our purposes, the Book of Holiness became the starting point for a three week unit on ‘Education and Virtue,’ we studied the Book of Temperance under the rubric ‘Living in the World,’ and the Book of Chastity became ‘Family, Sex, and Marriage in Renaissance England.’ By grouping together other primary materials (a few Shakespeare plays, Bacon’s Essays, Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday, and other works) under approximate categories established by the poem, we were able to encounter some of the complexities of the period, if not on its own terms, at least in one of its own schemes. Not everyone would agree that this is a significant or even desirable goal, but I am convinced that it is extremely valuable to begin an examination of Elizabethan ideas of gender in the context of chastity in general and Britomart in particular, or to approach the question of the rightly ordered sixteenth-century life through Guyon’s experiments in temperance. By consciously grounding such investigations in the cultural logic of The Faerie Queene, not only the particular topic, here gender or ethics, but the coherence or lack thereof of the whole paradigm becomes a subject for study. This brings us close to Tillyard’s project, which sought to abstract and label the constituent parts of such a paradigm. In The Faerie Queene, however, the reader encounters an ‘Elizabethan world picture’ in its original state, prior to the reductive processes that made Tillyard’s little book possible.

On the separate question of The Faerie Queene’s relation to material culture, it would overstate the case to claim that material culture as defined previously has no place in the poem. Rather, the nature of the poem’s allegory leads the poet to idealize or otherwise deny the uniqueness of the material in the poem. Canto I of Book I affords several apt examples. When the Redcrosse Knight and Una enter the ‘wandring wood,’ the description of the surroundings includes pine, cedar, elm, poplar, oak, aspen, cypress, laurel, willow, yew, birch, sallow, myrrh, beech, ash, olive, ‘platane,’ ‘holme,’ and maple trees, each with an epithet indicating its particular use or distinguishing characteristic. Had the poet chosen to mention several of these trees rather than the whole list, the reader would recognize herself in the land of the actual or the material, where a walk in the woods might yield such sights. But Spenser’s characters encounter a catalogue of trees, which suggests that they inhabit the land of memory, not of materiality.

A few stanzas later in the same canto, we have the dragon Errour vomiting up material culture:

Therewith she spewd out of her filthy maw
A floud of poyson horrible and blacke,
Full of great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw,
Which stunk 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 toads, which eyes did lacke,
And creeping sought way in the weedy gras:
Her filthy parbreak all the place defiled has. (1.1.20)

The ‘bookes and papers’ that Errour spews out are the material source of theological error that the allegory is warning against. When Spenser lifts the veil of his allegory for a moment in this first episode to teach the reader how to interpret his work, we see the material behind it. But this is a rare occurrence in the poem. The ‘wandring wood’ contains a catalogue of trees because it is not any particular forest. The objects that Errour vomits up violate the allegorical integrity of the scene because they do not belong to the same level of signification as the frogs and toads or the dragon herself, but even these objects are not particular books or papers. To the extent that the material is fixed in time and space, it does not signify; it stands only for itself; it is counter-allegorical.

There is another sense in which The Faerie Queene can introduce students to late Tudor culture -- another more literal sense. The text itself comes down to us across the centuries, a document printed at a given time in a given place with given conventions. As part of the 1590s seminar, I arranged for my class to visit the rare books room at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio and handle some early modern texts – to open the bindings, feel the paper, look at the type on these objects that had traveled across the ocean to a particular corner of the New World. Although the library does not own an early edition of The Faerie Queene, students were able to pass around a quarto edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and several less familiar works from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. With A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular, they were impressed by the humility of the quarto text; unadorned with introduction, footnotes, or other textual apparatus, printed on rough paper, it seemed to have a plainness about it that belied its subsequent place in literary history.

IV. Education and Virtue

I have in the last few years become convinced of the merits of requiring undergraduates to work with primary texts exclusively in much of their writing, to enable them to make the connections that they would find already made for them in the secondary literature. (Allowing the students to make their own explorations and discoveries also seemed consistent with the overall design and intention of the 1590s London course.) These writing assignments work best, I have found, when students are assigned lesser known texts or unfamiliar combinations of texts and are thus unlikely to be tempted by the Internet’s store of fenced prose. The first such assignment in my course was the ‘Education and Virtue’ paper.

This assignment was made possible – or at least, practicable – by the efforts of William Barker at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Andrea Nagy with the Oxford English Dictionary who respectively edited and published online Richard Mulcaster’s Positions Concerning the Training Up of Children (1581) and his Elementarie (1582). Once I had directed students to the online editions of these educational texts by Spenser’s former headmaster at the Merchant Taylors’ School, the rest of the requirements of the paper were rather straightforward: 8-10 pages on a thesis that brought together Book I of The Faerie Queene, some concept from Mulcaster, and at least one other source, either Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV or one of Bacon’s essays. I also encouraged them to make reference to Tillyard’s Elizabethan World Picture and Orlin’s Material London volume wherever appropriate. I proscribed the use of secondary sources on The Faerie Queene or on Mulcaster, having provided what I thought sufficient context in class for them to make use of these works. I also enjoined them from relying on vague generalizations about the works in question; they were told to quote freely from the texts and use those passages as evidence to support their own analysis. In addition to the objectives standard to undergraduate paper assignments, I hoped the paper would help students collapse the distinction between ‘literary text’ and ‘historical context’ and to modulate between intra- and inter-textual thematic and formal analysis. I also thought it important to allow students to choose both their topic and collateral texts even as I specified the primary works and the general orientation of the paper.

Because I feared my students would have difficulty arriving at workable topics, I devoted a class session to outlining a sample paper. In that session, I used a web projector to display Mulcaster’s Positions to the class and we scrolled through the text slowly until they chose a passage upon which to base a sample paper. Several volunteers wrote down key passages from Mulcaster’s text for use in the outline and then we turned off the projector and discussed how we might connect his ideas with those found in other texts we had read. After a few moments, there was a flood of suggestions: one student remembered a relevant section from Bacon’s ‘Of Nobility,’ another was reminded of Una’s admonition to the Redcrosse Knight in Book 1, a third related the whole idea to Tillyard’s claims about Elizabethan hierarchical thinking. Soon they had filled the chalkboard with possible connections between these works, arrived at a thesis, and generated a promising outline. I later observed that that class session marked a turning point in the writing of their papers: once they had seen the process of relating the works to each other thematically or formally, most of them were able to craft successfully their own papers.

Many undergraduate writers, when confronted with the conclusions of published literary critics on topics they themselves are exploring for the first time, have an understandable difficulty in asserting their own voice and point of view. For previous writing assignments in which I encouraged or even allowed students to consult critical works, they would often submit what amounted to clumsy redactions of the various sources they had consulted. Most troubling was the frequency with which even the strongest students would give in to the lure of their secondary sources. The ‘Education and Virtue’ assignment gave them the raw materials – in this case, the primary texts plus Mulcaster’s educational theories – to build their own critical edifice, to draw their own connections and conclusions.

V. The Course Thus Charted

Although not an unqualified success, my experiment in teaching a course focused on the literature and culture of a single decade of English history was well received by the thirteen intrepid students who enrolled in it and I plan to offer it again. The artificial chronological limits I imposed ruled out some of the texts I would have normally tried to include in a Renaissance topics course; I was forced to dig more deeply into the period and teach some fascinating but lesser known works. Also, and more importantly, I noticed as the semester went on that the students began to benefit from the accumulation of knowledge on a narrow subject, and that the level of discourse in the class and in their papers improved as a result. Of course, the same effect may be observed in a major author course or a genre course. The difference lies in the nature of the accumulated knowledge: rather than a progressively more thorough understanding of the works of Milton or the conventions of the epic poem, the students became more and more familiar with late Elizabethan culture in its many manifestations. They learned how to read aspects of the culture as well as its literature.

In retrospect, the decision to use The Faerie Queene to ground the course proved crucial for much the same reason: by the end of the semester, the students’ familiarity with the first three books of the poem provided them with a common collection of stories and characters and themes to draw upon in their writing about and discussion of other works from the period. The poem’s capaciousness allowed us to debate the painting of Tillyard’s world picture, the diverse claims advanced in Material London, some of Lawrence Stone’s more provocative assertions, and a host of other topics. Someone may plausibly object that a course that teaches the first three books of The Faerie Queene cannot be properly described as ‘doing more with less’ in any meaningful sense of the phrase. And so it would appear, until the full richness of the decade behind the poem begins to come into focus, until the working definition of ‘English Renaissance’ is expanded to include more than its literary achievements.


Appendix: A Selection of ‘Education and Virtue’ Papers

Author: C. D.

Title: ‘The Ultimate Education’

Abstract: ‘Both Spenser and Shakespeare show that education is not only taught through formal learning, but that education is the product of experience; and it is only through combining education with experience that one can obtain a true education.’

Author: A. M.

Title: ‘God’s Intent: The Perceived Relationship Between the Mind and the Body in Mulcaster’s Positions, Bacon’s Essays, and Spenser’s Faerie Queene’

Thesis: ‘The readers of the 1590s believed that God did not randomly bestow good looks, intelligence, and virtue; they were given to his chosen people and one was not given without the other two. This view affected their entire lives: the way they treated others, who they trusted, how they treated and raised their children, and most importantly, how they viewed themselves in relation to the rest of the world.’

Author: J. M.

Title: ‘“Add Faith unto Your Force”: The Indoctrination of Religion in Renaissance England’

Thesis: ‘Featuring Mulcaster as the headmaster of Redcrosse’s Faerieland, the education of the Knight can be analyzed in the context of Renaissance ideals of education and virtue. Redcrosse learns that strength of body is not enough to fulfill his quest of Holiness without strength of mind, and that the strength he summons is not his own, but the power of God invested in him by the One True Church.’

Author: L. O.

Title: ‘It’s Good to Be Queen: Loyalty, Education, and Virtue in Mulcaster’s Positions, Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One, and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene

Thesis: ‘Richard Mulcaster’s Positions Concerning the Training Up of Children describes the ideal education as one that simply refines the virtuous, patriotic impulse already inherent in Christian Englishmen; as evidenced in Henry IV, Part One and The Faerie Queene, the ‘virtuous’ instinct Mulcaster describes directs the educated man in his natural desire to serve the state.’


Works Cited

  • Bentley, Thomas (1582) The Monument of Matrones: Conteining Seven Severall Lamps of Virginitie, or Distinct Treatises; Whereof the First Five Concerne Praier and Meditation: the Other Two Last, Precepts and Examples London.
  • Buckman, Ty (1995) ‘The Perils of Marriage Counselling: John Stubbs, Philip Sidney, and the Virgin Queen,’ in Renaissance Papers (Barbara Baines & George Walton Williams, eds.) Raleigh: SERC, pp. 125-41.
  • Lewis, C. S. (1954) English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama Oxford: Clarendon.
  • Miller, David Lee (1994), & Dunlop, Alexander (eds.) Approaches to Teaching Spenser’s Faerie Queene New York: MLA.
  • Mulcaster, Richard (1581) Positions Concerning the Training Up of Children (William Barker, ed.) available at: http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~wbarker/positions.html.
  • --- (1582) First Part of the Elementarie (Andrea Nagy, ed.) available at: http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/p/pd-modeng/pd-modeng-idx?type=header&byte=51422115
  • Orlin, Lena Cowen, ed. (2000) Material London, ca. 1600 Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Paster, Gail Kern (2000) ‘Purgation as the Allure of Mastery: Early Modern Medicine and the Technology of the Self,’ in Orlin (2000) Material London, ca 1600, pp. 193-205.
  • Sinfield, Alan (2000) ‘Poetaster, the Author, and the Perils of Cultural Production’ in Orlin (2000) Material London, ca. 1600, pp. 75-90.
  • Singman, Jeffrey (1995) Daily Life in Elizabethan England Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood.
  • Spenser, Edmund (1977) The Faerie Queene (A. C. Hamilton, ed.) New York: Longman.
  • Stone, Lawrence (1977) The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 New York: Harper & Row.
  • Stubbs, John (1968) Discoverie of a Gaping Gulf: With Letters and Other Relevant Documents (Lloyd E. Berry, ed.) Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia for Folger Shakespeare Library.
  • Tillyard, E. M. W. (1941) The Elizabethan World Picture New York: Macmillan.