Paul Budra. A Mirror for Magistrates and the de casibus Tradition. Toronto, Buffalo, London: U of Toronto P, 2000. xiv+119pp. ISBN 0 8020 4717 3.

Dermot Cavanagh
University of Northumbria

Cavanagh, Dermot. "Review of Paul Budra, A Mirror for Magistrates and the de casibus Tradition." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.2 (September, 2001): 7.1-7 <URL:

  1. A Mirror for Magistrates was one of the enduring successes of Tudor (and Stuart) literature. It continued to instruct and entertain, with new contents and casts, from its first appearance in 1559 until 1610, receiving the attentions of four editors and outliving many of its original contributors. Influential and widely imitated, it expanded to accommodate the great, good and unspeakable of English (and British history) - from Brute to Elizabeth in just under a hundred poems--and even managed to please the notoriously choosy Sir Philip Sidney who commended its "bewtiful partes."

  2. Yet, the Mirror nearly failed to appear at all; the original edition was quashed by Marian censorship in 1554. William Baldwin, its first editor, commissioned nineteen tragic tales from his collaborators, largely concerned with protagonists from the Wars of the Roses. These were perceived as advancing a protestant agenda and the Mirror only emerged after the Elizabethan succession and then it was still shorn of three contentious tales. Yet, any controversy accruing to the work was soon lost to posterity. It has generally been seen as drearily homiletic--a desolate parade of exemplary has-beens lamenting the worst career moves in history--and relegated to the drab 'background' composed by the period's received political ideas.

  3. In this excellent study, Paul Budra demonstrates the limitations of these assumptions. At the core of his argument is an attack upon the most disabling belief concerning the Mirror--that it is a rudimentary example of tragic narrative. Seeing the work as a crude forebear of Elizabethan tragic drama effaces its status as an instance of de casibus literature. The work was originally commissioned to extend Lydgate's Fall of Princes, a version of a (very loose) French translation of Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium. The latter was a work of moral history, not tragedy, and was overtly political and satirical in intent. Boccaccio presented an extensive sequence of biographies that demonstrated, gratifyingly, how a falling pattern was intrinsic to the lives of the great.

  4. It is this historical vision that Budra sees as inspiring Baldwin and his collaborators. This study emphasises how seriously these writers took themselves as historians, attending carefully to issues of chronology and accuracy. It also traces the impact of new trends in humanist historiography to be gauged by the writers' interest in political wisdom, prudential skills and the best (or worst) forms of strategic calculation. This approach restores to the text an intense form of political engagement neatly expressed in its title, which also alerts us to its intended readership. Budra invites us to conceive of the Mirror as "a sort of inverted courtesy book" (31)--direct, unglamorous, devoid of hermetic irony or elaborate artifice. It functions, therefore, as a kind of self-help manual for anxious Tudor bureaucrats, indeed, Budra argues, the Mirror is designed to make civic functionaries even more concerned. Its negative examples are designed to force those charged with the management of the realm to undergo a process of moral and political introspection into the extent of their responsibilities and the equity of their own conduct.

  5. Yet, Budra's book has its own de casibus story to tell concerning the Mirror. The rot sets in with the printing of John Higgins's The First Part of the Mirror for Magistrates in 1575, a work concerned with legendary Britain. This marks a retreat from the political ardour and ideological cohesion of the early Elizabethan editions inspired by William Baldwin. Higgins introduced a more markedly providential conception of history and, consequently, any interest in the agency of individuals was diminished. His work also set the tone for subsequent editions by privileging antiquarian lore, legendary history, myth and, eventually, Tudor nostalgia. Thus, the didactic purpose of the original project dissolved in a welter of abstruse, sentimental versifying. Baldwin's colourful representation of an engaged polyvocal community--imagining, evaluating, and discussing events in a kind of prototype of the public sphere--dwindled to a monochrome panegyric to authority.

  6. This is a lucid, original study of an unfashionable topic. It contains a useful account of the development of de casibus literature and reminds us of how the original Mirror allowed Eleanor Cobham a just and powerful political voice, but that subsequent female speakers were circumscribed by the pattern of temptation, sin and death epitomised by Jane Shore. It concludes with a salutary reversal of normal critical practice by examining the influence of drama upon the Mirror--principally, its eclectic, heteroglot organisation and fondness for the dramatically conceived monologue--and, then, more conventionally, its impact on Shakespeare's history plays, especially Richard II.

  7. Unlike its subject, this book is economical, even slight, and, at times, a little more expansion would have been welcome. Budra is curiously inattentive to the aesthetic features of the text. He mentions at the outset the Mirror's most striking formal innovation--that the ghosts speak directly to Baldwin from the grave rather than having their vision explained after the fact--but the work's poetic devices, rhetorical strategies, stylistic contrasts (including Baldwin's notable prose) receive little formal attention. Perhaps the sense of a progressive dissolution of the work's merit is also a little over-drawn. The sense of mid-Tudor political assertiveness being swamped by the grim tide of Stuart deference might be tested--if anyone strong-willed enough can undertake more detailed study of the intentions and contexts of the later editions. This is an invigorating contribution to the study of early modern historical writing that recovers the significance of a neglected work and genre.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)