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The Catholic Historical Review 90.3 (2004) 439-455

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Baffling the Blatant Beast:

Robert Persons' Anti-Appellant Rhetoric, 1601-1602

In Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, Book VI (published in 1596), Sir Calidore, the patron knight of courtesy, is commissioned to baffle the Blatant Beast of slander and repair the damage he has caused. In an ecclesiastical context, it appears that Spenser primarily identifies the Blatant Beast with iconoclasm:

Through all estates he found that he had past,
      In which he many massacres had left,
      And to the Clergy now was come at last;
      In which such spoile, such hauocke, and such theft
      He wrought, that thence all goodnesse he bereft,
      That endlesse were to tell. The Elfin Knight,
      Who now no place besides vnsought had left,
      At length into a Monastere did light,
Where he him found despoyling all with maine and might.1

There is an allusion here to the despoiling of the monasteries by Henry VIII, in which slander—a cynical exposé, as his critics maintained, of monkish corruption—played a central role. But Spenser, writing at much the same time as Richard Hooker's defense of tradition against the Puritans Walter Travers and Thomas Cartwright, is also concerned about a mean spirit of detraction, a ruthless determination to leave nothing standing of the old order.2 And behind this he detects something even more comprehensively threatening. [End Page 439]

Book VI of The Faerie Queene takes Spenser's meditation on the nature and conditions of moral virtue into new territory. It is not enough, he seems to be arguing, for a person to be righteous, for temperance to go beyond mediating between extremes; it is not enough to harness natural energies and respond to the beauty deep down things, to unite with the like-minded and resist public and private evil. Such virtues are explored with great subtlety in the first five books of the poem. Book Six implies that they are limited in their power unless recognition is super-added. The beauty of holiness needs to be respected, treated with courtesy, or it will not be able to radiate out and transform the world. That is why envy, slander, detraction, the spirit of carping and fault-finding, are so destructive. Spenser is at pains to register the fragility of his vision of goodness. Not even Calidore, approaching the dance of the Graces, is sensitive enough to prevent them vanishing. Colin Clout, the figure of the poet himself, breaks his pipe in frustration.3

Robert Persons the Jesuit was not, one would think, a kindred spirit with the convinced Protestant Edmund Spenser, but he shared the horror of slander as a form of iconoclasm, the destruction of an image. Unlike Spenser, he was himself a prime target of a smear campaign, so hisstrictures on detraction were even less disinterested,4 but his self-vindication in the fierce appellant controversy of 1598-1602 makes for a fascinating case study of engaging with the Blatant Beast.

In March, 1598, the Cardinal Protector of England, Enrico Caetani, proposed that the persecuted Church of Rome in England should be [End Page 440] placed under the authority of an archpriest. George Blackwell was appointed, and the Jesuit superior, Henry Garnet, reported that there was general acceptance among the clergy. Perhaps. But a relatively small but determined group of secular priests—just how representative they were of a wider feeling it is hard to establish—protested against the imposition, as they saw it, of an unwanted and unfamiliar form of church government.5 Fundamentally, they were disaffected with the Jesuits, whom they believed to be behind the move and would stand to gain from it. That disaffection, in turn, stemmed from perceived Jesuit domination of the English seminaries, Jesuit promotion of Spanish political interest (incurring the wrath of the English authorities on all Catholics), and Jesuit involvement in the notorious Wisbech Stirs. Father William Weston, Garnet's predecessor as Jesuit superior, had entered the community of jailed Catholic clerics at Wisbech Castle in 1588; in December, 1594...


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