Marsha S. Robinson. Writing the Reformation: Actes and Monuments and the Jacobean History Play. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2002. xxiii+192 pp. ISBN 0754606147.
Ramie Targoff. Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001. xiii+162 pp. ISBN 0226789691 Paper, 0226789683 Cloth.

Timothy Rosendale
Southern Methodist University

Rosendale, Timothy. "Review of Marsha S. Robinson. Writing the Reformation: Actes and Monuments and the Jacobean History Play and Ramie Targoff. Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.3 / Special Issue 12 (January, 2004): 13.1-14 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/09-3/revtarg.htm>

  1. Two recent books study the complex nature and influence of two of the central texts of the English Reformation. Each is a welcome addition to the recent surge in interest in early modern religion among literary scholars.

  2. Marsha S. Robinson's Writing the Reformation: Actes and Monuments and the Jacobean History Play deals with a largely neglected group of plays, including Sir John Oldcastle; Thomas Lord Cromwell; Sir Thomas Wyatt; When You See Me, You Know Me; If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody; The Whore of Babylon; Henry VIII; and The Duchess of Suffolk. These early seventeenth- century plays tend to dramatize Tudor history rather than earlier eras, and they derive material from John Foxe's immensely influential presentation of that history. Robinson argues that they share more than that: they articulate a fundamentally tragicomic "Foxean" vision of history, with all its principles and problems, and use that vision to interpretively intervene in the present and change the future.

  3. Much of the interest of Robinson's analysis derives from tensions inherent in Foxe's efforts to explain sociopolitical history as cosmic, providential history. The difficulties involved in using an apocalyptic framework to interpret temporal events, and doing so in a specifically national context, generated a host of attendant tensions. Was the true Church a national church or a persecuted minority? (The relation of the latter to apocalyptic history was perceptively treated by Richard Helgerson in Forms of Nationhood, a flawed but significant study that is curiously absent from this book.) Had history been fulfilled or betrayed by the Elizabethan Settlement? Under what conditions, if any, can political and spiritual allegiance coincide? What are the relative authorities of temporal power and conscience, and how are conflicts between them to be negotiated? What historiographical frame can account for the past, give meaning to the present, and show the way into the future? These problematics are all visible in Foxe, as well as in subsequent appropriations of him, and Robinson is often at her best when explicating their complexities.

  4. Her first chapter deals with the staging of a Reformed history which re-understands the official record of the past. For example, when dealing with the still-vital question of how religious dissent might be distinguished from treason, the plays, like Foxe, insist that heroic patriotism and heroic martyrdom can coexist; these realignments enable historic traitors like Oldcastle, Wyatt and Essex to be reclaimed as Protestant patriots. This historiographic revisionism also manifests itself in a frequent presentation of past-as-prophecy, as "prologue to the present, a script written by God" (18). Chapter two treats the Jacobean staging of Foxe's obsession with examinations and trials as arenas in which truth and falsehood contended. In these ordeals, competing versions of truth, justice, and authority are weighed, while the entire process is contextualized in the grand apocalyptic tragicomedy, in which temporal suffering and injustice give way to providential redemption. The logic and problematics of Protestant conscience--authority, interiority, authenticity, conflict, interpretation--are addressed in the third chapter, perhaps the book's best. Robinson is particularly illuminating in her discussion of synteresis, the authenticating body of truth with which the individual conscience needed to be aligned; though there were (of course) many sorts of syntereses, Protestants saw the Bible as this controlling and unifying principle, and thus (partially) defused the anarchic implications of conscience. Chapters 4 and 5 are solid but more conventional: they examine the "Foxean" dismantling of traditional hierarchies of class and gender, respectively, as the lower classes and women are affirmed to possess an inner authority that is at once destabilizing and authentic. And a concluding chapter highlights the ways in which Tudor history, reconceived along the previous lines and dramatically staged, became a complex forum for Stuart debates over political and religious policy. Foxe's re-vision of history as comoedia apocalyptica thus became a variously appropriable mode of intervention into an increasingly fractious present.

  5. Robinson's book is not without flaws. One has to do with the typical form of her arguments: most subsections begin with an introductory discussion of an issue and its context (often very interesting), followed by a lengthy rehearsal of its embodiment in various plays which consists largely of plot description. Given the nature of her argument and the obscurity of the texts in question, perhaps this sort of evidence is necessary--but it does not always make for fascinating reading. Another obstacle is her tendency to begin sentences with weak modifying phrases (e.g., "Ambivalent in his portrait of capable and thus androgynous females like Alice, Foxe often underscores female limitations"; "Aggrandizing female weakness, Foxe…"; "Reinforcing a misogynistic naturalization of the 'general fallibility or even depravity' of their own sex, exceptional women like Elizabeth I were distanced from ordinary women" [120-1]). Used in moderation, this structure can be elegant; when one has to hunt down one deferred subject after another, however--and random sampling suggests that there are hundreds upon hundreds of them in this book--the effect is exhausting.

  6. The author also uses two words with excessive frequency: "emplot" (and its variants) and "Foxean." Annoyance with the former may be blamed on the reviewer's irritability, but the latter touches on an important question about Robinson's argument. She describes many things as "Foxean," but it's not always clear precisely what this means. Does it mean that they can be traced directly back to him? That they originated with him, and are distinctively recognizable as such? Or that they simply resemble something found in his writings, but also elsewhere? If we are talking about, say, gender inclusion or class inversion, or an insistence on the claims of conscience, these things have an extensive existence alongside and prior to Foxe, going back through the Reformation to the primitive church and the Bible itself. And if in any instance that abandons us without warning to my third definition, the word, and potentially the argument, has ceased to mean much. (Or, at any rate, a different sort of argument is being made from that implied by the adjective.)

  7. My intention is of course not to deny the enormous influence of Foxe, either on the age or on these authors; it's quite possible, and in fact very likely, that he was the conduit through which certain longstanding ideas funneled into these plays. Robinson often makes rather persuasive arguments and analyses, and while her arguments about Foxe are not highly original, they are thoughtfully framed and, for the most part, sensitive to the complexities and fractures that make him so interesting. It's profitable reading.

  8. Acts & Monuments has gotten a good deal of well-deserved attention from literary types in recent years. Ramie Targoff's Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England is especially welcome for its focus on an equally important but egregiously understudied text of the English Reformation: the Book of Common Prayer. Targoff's nuanced book argues that the Protestant liturgy sought to transform and subsume the inner devotional self through forms of public devotion; the logic of English common prayer in turn played an important role in "determining the poetic forms that seemed most effective for acts of personal as well as collective expression" (6).

  9. Targoff's opening chapters position her polemic in opposition to a variety of targets: the assumption that Protestantism was triumphantly, liberatingly individualistic; the assumption that the Church of England was more interested in external conformity than in internal assent; the critical tendency to focus narrowly on the political or theological, rather than devotional, implications of Prayerbook worship. She argues that the potent combination of uniformity and comprehensibility made the English service less individualized and devotionally free, not more, than traditional Catholic worship. The programmatic integration of communal and private worship works decidedly in favor of the former. Chapter two treats the late Elizabethan debates over spontaneity and conformity in the liturgy. Nonconformists argue that "bare reading" crowds out spiritually authentic worship; Whitgift, Hooker and others respond that liturgical public worship is socially, spiritually, and psychologically essential--and at any rate, far preferable to the chaotic babblings of non-uniform worship.

  10. The second half of the book examines how the language of public devotion exerted a powerful influence on subsequent poetry. Targoff's third chapter traces the realignment of poetry and prayer after the English liturgy removed the need for mnemonic vernacular verse in worship. The high status of the Psalms enabled a progression from the liturgical prose version of Coverdale to the metrical verse of Sternhold and Hopkins, and then to the self-consciously poetic renderings of the Sidney-Pembroke Psalter. Of this last text, Targoff argues that "[t]he use of a paradigmatic or representative speaker; the non-specificity, and hence reiterability of the text; the commitment to formalized language as the ideal medium for communicating one's prayers; each of these aspects of common prayer resonates powerfully within the Sidney-Pembroke Psalms" (78). Chapter four is a very insightful analysis of the further development of a lyric mode which was "simultaneously personal and communal, faithful and formal" (88) in the work of George Herbert, which makes available "the perfect fusion of personal and universal voice that common prayer sought to achieve" (117). A brief conclusion on the Bay Psalm Book follows the dynamics of prayer and poetry to New England.

  11. Common Prayer has some great strengths. Targoff's arguments are elegant and subtle, and effectively force reconsideration of some basic assumptions. She is a very skilled and sensitive reader who produces moments of great insight: her recurring analysis of the pronouns "I" and "we," for example, is both remarkably simple and remarkably illuminating. And her literary readings for the most part flow in interesting ways from her opening chapters.

  12. It's those opening chapters that are problematic. In her chapter on Herbert, Targoff challenges a longstanding critical assumption that the religious lyric is inherently private, and that poetry with formal or communal (i.e., liturgical) commitments is inferior to the lyricized individual experience. Here she displays an exemplary self-awareness of critical prejudices. But a related sort of prejudice greatly compromises her initial historical/theological arguments, which are confident but insecurely founded. The nonconformist suspicion of set forms (based centrally on the assumption that authenticity requires a coincidence of inward and outward disposition, with precedence given to the former), powerfully expressed by Milton and later re-energized in the Romantic elevation of spontaneity, filters subtly into the first half of the book. Whereas her treatment of Herbert discerns an irenic harmony between personal and collective expression, her earlier arguments posit no such synthetic equality; rather, the collective voice shapes, molds, invades, and displaces the private.

  13. This, it must be said, is indeed a defining quality of liturgy, particularly a coercively- uniform one: by imposing set forms upon its subjects, it inevitably asserts certain claims on the behalf of the collective order, and requires individual submission to it. It is also to be expected that theological rationales for the individual benefits of uniform worship were seriously advanced. But in the Prayerbook's case, this is not the whole story--and Targoff, unfortunately, dismisses the rest of the story in her first five pages. Her account is on its face quite persuasive, but when one considers that the Prayerbook existed alongside, and in the shadow of, the English Bible (which carried with it a set of individual-authorizing exegetical imperatives); that both the liturgy's theological implications and its notorious ambivalences (which were at once the source of perennial discontent and the basis of its broad workability) clear a similar theological and devotional space (that is, that the liturgy was also deeply shaped by Protestant discourses of individual authority); that the debates over the BCP involved larger political and theological issues than just conformity and posture (the 1554-5 dustup among the exiles at Frankfurt is an important early instance of which Targoff seems unaware); and that the church-state "establishment" was never as univocal as she suggests on the efficacy of external devotion on the worshipper's internal state, or on the necessity of conformity in the latter; it becomes quite apparent that the Book of Common Prayer never had the straightforwardness of purpose that she ascribes to it. Upon such reconsideration, frequent instances of sketchy (and at times quite dubious) argument, thin evidence, and elided complexities become visible.

  14. Hobbes would later argue that outward conformity in worship was simply an external sign of obedience, which did not necessarily impinge upon internal conviction. In doing so, he joined a long tradition which insisted that private and public devotion serve different purposes, and need not be wholly unified. That the Prayerbook lent itself to this sort of reading, and others, demonstrates its complex situation among multiple discourses and cultural imperatives. Targoff's book is a very good, provocative, ambitious explication of one--but just one--of these imperatives. Its flaws suggest that this book is not likely to upend the existing consensus, such as it is, in all the historical and theological matters it addresses. But it may provoke some healthy reassessment. And if it helps reverse the general disregard of the Book of Common Prayer among literary scholars, it will have an important achievement to its credit.

Work Cited

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

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).