Arthur F. Marotti. Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy: Catholic and Anti-Catholic Discourses in Early Modern England. Notre Dame, Indiana: U of Notre Dame P, 2005. xii+307pp. ISBN 0 268 03480 X.

Alison Shell
University of Durham

Shell, Alison. "Review of Arthur F. Marotti, Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy: Catholic and Anti-Catholic Discourses in Early Modern England." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.2 (September, 2006) 14.1-6<URL:>.


  1. Polemic can have counter-productive effects, not deterring readers but engendering their sympathetic interest in the object of abuse. This is certainly what has happened in Renaissance studies in recent years. While new historicism was never particularly interested in religious issues as such, its exploration of historical contingency was bound to render these more visible to a later generation of scholars; and once the anti-Catholic agendas of poets like Spenser and dramatists like Webster had attracted systematic investigation, it was the natural next step to investigate the literary worlds of real Catholics. Anti-Catholicism and Catholicism are the uneasiest of bedfellows, but neither can be adequately explained without the other - or, indeed, the Other, given the moral panics which popery inspired in true Protestants.

  2. As Peter Lake put it several years ago in his essay 'Anti-popery: the structure of a prejudice', popery was seen as a 'perfectly symmetrical negative image of true Christianity'. Marotti's own essay 'Recusant women, Jesuits and Ideological Fantasies', is explicitly inspired by Lake's, but goes beyond it in drawing out the gendered implications of the divide; here, as so often elsewhere, binary oppositions between good and evil mapped all too easily onto those between man and woman. This need not have been simply a polemical construct, since recent scholarship has established a real and close association between Jesuits and aristocratic women; but then, polemic so often takes facts and gives them a cynical or lubricious twist. For instance, the phrase 'collapsed ladies', so often used to refer to female Catholic converts, suggestively equates religious apostasy with sexual yielding.

  3. The association between Catholics and women continues, since Catholics are, so to speak, the new women in Renaissance studies - long dismissed or sidelined, now more fashionable, but still in the process of acquiring canonical solidity. When recovering any minority literature whose practitioners, whether for reasons of gender or religion, felt obliged to be secret or discreet, then bibliographical and - especially - palaeographical detective work remains part of one's job; and those familiar with Marotti's earlier work will not be surprised that this study makes unusually heavy use of manuscript sources. The chapter 'Performing Conversion' demonstrates that self-conscious, literate conversion was by no means a Protestant prerogative; Marotti makes particularly stimulating use of William Alabaster's remarkable and under-studied conversion narrative, recently transcribed and edited by Dana Sutton. Alabaster can rival any puritan in his religious self-absorption -- as Marotti points out, 'one of the odd things about Alabaster's story is how little the recusant community figures in it' - and his self-construction as a confessor allies his narrative to Catholic martyrdom accounts, the subject of another chapter. Circulated by manuscript in a highly systematic manner, these were designed above all to stir up the zeal of the British and foreign Catholic communities who read them.

  4. Robert Southwell's poetry, with its intolerance of everything which does not tend towards religious edification, further illustrates the utilitarian priorities of post-Reformation British Catholic literature. Southwell's work is currently attracting a good deal of attention, with ground-breaking recent studies by Brian Cummings and Scott Pilarz, and Peter Davidson and Anne Sweeney's forthcoming edition of the verse from Carcanet Press. The metaphor of a relic pervades Marotti's chapter on Southwell's literary legacy, reminding the reader how necessary it is to read Catholic literary culture against Catholic material culture - indeed, a few illustrations of recusant relics would have been helpful. Robert Southwell and Edmund Campion share the honour of being the most literary Elizabethan martyr, and both accordingly attracted literary tributes from their contemporaries; Gerard Kilroy's Edmund Campion: Memory and Transcription sadly appeared too late for Marotti to use, but both scholars can be pleased that each set of conclusions reinforces the other.

  5. The final, and by far the longest, essay in this book discusses the anti-Catholic construction of Protestant English history. While concentrating on the Popish Plot and its aftermath, it suggests some broader questions: in particular, why an over-Protestantised version of English history has been the default one to such an extent that the corrective narratives of earlier generations, such as John Lingard's and William Cobbett's, have been forgotten and rediscovered in their turn. If historians as different as Eamon Duffy and Edwin Jones (in The English Nation: The Great Myth) are now identifying this amnesia and the reasons for it, one hopes there is no longer any need to reinvent the wheel. Marotti's book is a superbly well-informed one from the historical point of view, and complements these revisionist historical studies; but -- perhaps because of its author's dual roots in English literature and history -- it is content to chart the co-existence of overlapping worlds, rather than seeking a totalising explanation for them.

  6. Yet this should not be taken as indicating a lack of ambition. Despite being composed of five discrete essays, the book's coverage is broad; and though several of these essays have been reprinted from previous collections, they have a striking unity of purpose. An interest in post-Reformation British Catholic literature is growing steadily, but for a body of material that has been ignored in the mainstream for so long, a comprehensive survey is necessarily some years off. Meanwhile, Marotti's study is probably the nearest thing we have to a survey: proudly anti-canonical, but also looking towards a new canon.

Works Cited


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