Marcy L. North. The Anonymous Renaissance: Cultures of Discretion in Tudor-Stuart England. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P,2003. 288pp. ISBN 0 226 59437 8.
Frank Ardolino
University of Hawaii

Ardolino, Frank. "Review of Marcy L. North, The Anonymous Renaissance: Cultures of Discretion in Tudor-Stuart England." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.2 (September, 2003): 10.1-13 <URL:

  1. Marcy North's book is a groundbreaking one in which she defines and develops a study of the nature, types, and strategies of purposeful literary anonymity in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The designation of a work as being anonymous traditionally indicates an erasure of identity and a subsequent loss of stature for the work. It wasn't important enough to have retained its author's name or the author wished to efface himself as an individual so that the readers could concentrate on the work. Or the work was the product of a community of writers none of whom wants to claim authorship.

  2. This humble sense of a selfless author or author figures is the image most commonly associated with the medieval period--authors are content to remain anonymous so that their works might be seen as emanating from above and working through them as instruments rather than as the ultimate creators. All of this changed when print came in and created the desire of the individual author to be recognized as such.

  3. But North is out to revise these conventional theories by demonstrating that individual authorship did exist in the medieval period and that the advent of print did not eliminate the purposeful practice of anonymity. In fact, the various strategies served by anonymity were enhanced by early modern print conventions. The key word is strategy; North maintains that the presence of anonymity, except for the accidental loss of a name which does happen occasionally, can serve a number of strategies: the appearance of humility, protection from prosecution in religious controversies, the fostering of a sense of mystery, and the creation of two levels of audience, those who know the secret identity and those who don't.

  4. The purpose of her book is to "strive to identify anonymity's usefulness and significance for readers and book producers in specific social environments such as the ecclesiastical debates and coterie culture and to explore its conventionality and novelty within specific literary traditions and genres, such as printed miscellanies, coterie commonplace books, and female-voiced lyrics" (4). Anonymity can consist of the absence of a name, initials, pseudonyms, false attributions, Latinized names, and anagrams, all of which are calculated to have a certain effect on the readers who are an essential part of the network of anonymity. She argues that early modern authors and book producers intent on playing the game of anonymity utilized all the aspects of print, including paratextual contexts such as title pages, prefaces, and apologies that come to frame many printed books, "as an alternative source of authority, privilege, control, text presentation, and even identity" (33).

  5. What makes North's book so good are the scope of her investigation and the clarity of her thinking and style. She has a firm and thorough grasp of the subtleties and the effects of anonymity and traces its appearance in a wide variety of places. As a result, the readers feel that they are encountering a fully established field, which she analyzes with philosophical acuity.

  6. Her treatment of Spenser's authorial games of anonymity in the Shepheardes Calender adds little to what is already known, but she does give due emphasis to a neglected point--the maintenance of Spenser's anonymous authorship of the Calender for a decade after its publication in 1580 required the cooperation of a network of coterie members determined to keep the secret. She follows this collaborative theme throughout the book, especially in her analysis of the Marprelate controversy and the coterie conventions surrounding the publication and circulation of poetry anthologies.

  7. North makes a significant contribution to the study of anonymity in her treatment of George Puttenham's games of anonymity in The Arte of English Poesie. She links Puttenham with Spenser and deftly traces the paradoxical stances resulting from their primary anonymity trope of revelation and concealment: the byplay between public and private disclosure, the related appeal to elite and common audiences, and the maintenance of alternating postures of humility and assertion.

  8. She pinpoints Puttenham's flexibility in his creation of authorial and interpretative ambiguity, but it is North's flexibility which is also evident when she refuses to declare a final answer for the purpose of these stances: "His relationship with both his patronage audience and his print audience makes him writer and reader, seeker of patronage and critic of other patronage seekers, denouncer of anonymity and anonymous author" (107). As her analysis of Spenser and Puttenham demonstrates, anonymity is not just the opposite of naming; it is a complex authorial and editorial strategy with multiple uses.

  9. Her exhaustive analysis of the mutual use of anonymity in religious disputes is a tour de force assessment of the ways in which the polemicists used anonymity as both a positive and negative weapon. By keeping their works anonymous they could appear as the nameless transmitters of divine truth, while at the same time they could condemn their opponents' anonymity as proof of their cowardice and mendacity. The Martin Marprelate controversy, during which the puritans attacked the defenders of the Church of England, who in turn ridiculed Martin's tenets, represents the epitome of the complex employment of anonymity in promulgating religious beliefs and maintaining ambiguity at the same time: "The Martinists destabilized the relationship between pseudonym and historical author by granting each of these author-functions a number of contradictory identities and locations. . . . The satirists in the Marprelate controversy . . . encouraged the authoring of anonymity by making the manipulation of names, pseudonyms, and missing names meaningful" (157).

  10. North's central chapter concerns the literary effects of the games of anonymity established in the circulation of manuscript anthologies and the resulting byplay created by their publication. She presents an ingenious reading of the editorial use of initials, anagrams, marginal notations, placement and grouping of certain poems in the anthology, and variants and "errors"--all of which contribute to a coterie sense of searching for and uncovering the "missing" authorial identities, some of which are hidden in plain sight.

  11. She concludes this magisterial work with an analysis of the various types of "female" voices that can be created through the use of anonymity. She traces the number of ways in which a "female" voice can be constructed through male ventriloquism and female accounts of male behaviour, but concludes that the shield of anonymity prevents readers from ever knowing if the writer was indeed a woman.

  12. This is a fitting note for the book to end with, because the final impressions imparted by all of these examples of anonymity are deception and complexity. North has demonstrated that the authors and editors of a wide range of early modern literature used anonymity in a number of ways and that their readers enjoyed the resulting games of revelation and concealment. North's establishment of this field of study also has implications for the anonymous, collaborative, and misattributed plays of the period.

  13. It is inevitable in a book of this nature that the subject matter becomes somewhat repetitious as she traces the similar strategies of anonymity in different contexts. Also, at times the analyses become somewhat opaque, especially in her treatment of the nuances of the "female" voice, which can assume the pose of a quasi-female voice pretending to be a male ventriloquizing a woman's locutions. Finally, the book needs a bibliography: without one the reader is forced to employ a hunt and peck system of consulting the index for the page numbers where the author is mentioned and then going to the end notes for the complete reference, which, unfortunately, sometimes is lacking. Overall, however, this work makes a significant scholarly contribution to our growing awareness and understanding of the various stances and strategies of authorial anonymity found in early modern literature.

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

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).