Miola: Early Modern Catholicism

January 22, 2009

Early Modern Catholicism
An Anthology of Primary Sources

Robert S. Miola, Ed. (Oxford, 2007)
534 p.  First reading.

Robert Miola has done us a good service.  In this book he pulls together dozens of texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that pertain, in one way or another, to English Catholicism.  He cuts a wide swath, taking in devotional texts, biographies, histories, religious tracts, poems and songs, letters, plays, and more. It is a genuine treasure trove for anyone with an interest in this period.

Among his selections one first finds the major authors whom one expects to find.  St. Thomas More is represented by excerpts from his works of religious controversy, by A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, written while he awaited execution in the Tower of London, and by a portion of William Roper’s early biography.  Great poets like Donne, Jonson, and Crashaw are all represented, though the particular poems, all on Catholic themes, may not be well-known.  William Shakespeare is here, not because Miola thinks him a Catholic playwright — he has put the matter this way: “Dante was a Catholic, Milton was a Protestant, Shakespeare was a dramatist” — but because Catholicism does appear in Shakespeare’s plays, and his treatment of it is in some ways atypical for the time.

Just as interesting are the selections from less well-known sources: an anonymous song about the destruction of the pilgrimage shrine at Walsingham, an account of the death by piene forte et dure of St. Margaret Clitherow, beautiful religious poetry by Henry Constable and St. Robert Southwell, and Elizabeth Southwell’s record of the death of Queen Elizabeth (in which she explains that not only was Anne Boleyn an illegitimate child of Henry VIII, but she was graced with “a projecting tooth under the upper lip and on her right hand six fingers”).  Some of the material, like that last, is polemical and scandalous, but other selections, such as Nicholas Sander‘s Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism (1585), contain serious argumentation and careful reasoning, and would still make edifying reading for Anglicans today.  Bartolomé de Las Casas contributes The Spanish Colony (1583), in which he describes his horror at the brutality of the Spanish conquerors of the New World and pleads that the essential humanity of the natives be recognized and respected.

For a few years now I have had a particular interest in the Jesuit mission in England under Elizabeth I and James I, and Miola had included several excellent pieces in this connection.  We find Edmund Campion‘s famous Letter to the Privy Council (1580), more commonly called “Campion’s Brag”, in which he announces to the authorities with dashing confidence his religious mission among the English people.  Even more absorbing are Campion’s arguments before a panel of clerics during his imprisonment in the Tower, and finally an account, by one Thomas Alfield, of his 1581 martyrdom.  The Jesuit Superior of England from 1586-1606 was Henry Garnet, and Miola includes a selection from his A Treatise of Equivocation (c.1598), which attempts to treat one of the most pressing issues of moral theology for English Catholics facing threats of violence: is it licit to equivocate in answer to the authorities, or is such equivocation tantamount to lying?

I cannot convey the richness of the book in such short compass.  It was a maddeningly complex time, with political and religious loyalties intertwined and often in conflict and confused.  Allegiances were sometimes unstable: John Donne was raised Catholic but became a great Anglican clergyman, Ben Jonson converted to Catholicism and then converted back a decade later.  Religious convictions had to contend, in a quite immediate way, with the threat of physical violence.  Even among the Catholic faithful it was sometimes not clear just what was at stake in the English Reformation, and there was controversy over what changes were or were not licit.  Miola has managed to reveal that complexity in perhaps the only way that it could really be done: by allowing the people to speak to us with their own voices.

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