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The Fabulous Dark Cloister

Romance in England after the Reformation

Tiffany Jo Werth

Publication Year: 2011

Romances were among the most popular books in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries among both Protestant and Catholic readers. Modeled after Catholic narratives, particularly the lives of saints, these works emphasized the supernatural and the marvelous, themes commonly associated with Catholicism. In this book, Tiffany Jo Werth investigates how post-Reformation English authors sought to discipline romance, appropriating its popularity while distilling its alleged Catholic taint. Charged with bewitching readers, especially women, into lust and heresy, romances sold briskly even as preachers and educators denounced them as papist. Protestant reformers, as part of their broader indictment of Catholicism, sought to redirect certain elements of the Christian tradition, including this notorious literary genre. Werth argues that through the writing and circulation of romances, Protestants repurposed their supernatural and otherwordly motifs in order to “fashion,” as Edmund Spenser writes, godly "vertuous" readers. Through careful examinations of the period’s most renowned romances—Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, William Shakespeare’s Pericles, and Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania—Werth illustrates how post-Reformation writers struggled to transform the literary genre. As a result, the romance, long regarded as an archetypal form closely allied with generalized Christian motifs, emerged as a result of the struggle as a central tenet of the religious controversies that divided Renaissance England.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. v-7

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pp. vii-ix

Once upon a time, this book took root as a dissertation at Columbia University. First thanks belong to Rich McCoy, who supported my crossover, and to David Scott Kastan for setting me on the path. Anne Lake Prescott offered sage advice and jogged my memory with forgotten emblems whenever I asked; I can only aspire to her wit and knowledge of Renaissance arcana. I also benefited

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pp. 1-17

In Shakespeare’s sonnet 73, the speaker evokes a landscape haunted by echoes of a season past. A few yellow leaves cling yet to their boughs, “which shake against the cold” and are now but “bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”1 The imagery of “bare ruined choirs” offers an architectural, visual reference to English history, calling to mind the state of the priories after...

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pp. 19-27

Why was English romance, post-Reformation, the object of such sustained scrutiny by religious polemicists and scarcely registered as a literary form by writers? At first glance, it might seem that the two discourses have little in common. After all, romances were popular secular texts and seemingly outside the religious disputes over catechism, books of prayer, and other devotional...

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1. Fabulous Romance and Abortive Reform in Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser

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pp. 29-59

This chapter begins with a “ruined” book, a lavishly bound collection of the foundational works of the English church published in 1616. This particular volume includes the Psalter, a genealogy of figures from sacred scripture drawn by John Speed, a brightly illustrated edition of the King James Bible by the printer Robert Barker, and the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalms in English...

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2. Saint or Martyr? Reforming the Romance Heroine in the New Arcadia and Pericles

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pp. 60-96

In the extract above taken from The Seven Champions of Christendom. (1596), Richard Johnson’s champions transform from holy pilgrim to knight, exchanging “Ebone staues” for “steeled blades,” shedding holy robes for steely armor. The quick “redy prest” easy transformation of pilgrims to champions provides a useful departure point for understanding the troubling fungibility between...

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pp. 97-102

Having put the case for the rehabilitation of romance through a conscientious effort to transform its most Catholic elements, I move on in the following pages to examine a related riposte to its affective commemorative powers. The conflict over romance’s “fabulous” legacy was deepened by its double commemorative affect. Put simply, readers remembered Arthur’s stories while...

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3. Glozing Phantastes in The Faerie Queene

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pp. 103-131

A peculiarly didactic anxiety to pedestrianize Ariosto’s winged horse pervades the gloss. It emblematizes concern for how readers will respond to what Harington elsewhere refers to as the “meerely fabulous” dimension of romance.1 The gloss insists on a double reading to defuse a marvelous motif—whose contentious nature I discussed in my previous two chapters—as well as the...

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4. “Soundly washed” or Interpretively Redeemed? Labor and Reading in Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania

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pp. 132-159

The shibboleths directed against English romance after the Reformation held it as a malign, dangerous, but seductively powerful hybrid, or “in-between,” genre, associated with Roman Catholicism and a pejorative femininity; this comes into sharp focus in the final text I consider: Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania. I have argued that romance sometimes stood for all that was taken to be wrong...

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Coda: Exceptional Romance

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pp. 161-164

If we compare the romance world of Sir Thomas Malory with that of Sir Philip Sidney or Lady Mary Wroth, we can catch a glimpse of some of the Reformation’s impact on England. Simultaneously, we can witness between them the continuities that tell a different story than that told by many reformers. I have addressed in the preceding chapters what I see as a particular moment...


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pp. 165-197


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pp. 199-221


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pp. 223-234

E-ISBN-13: 9781421404400
E-ISBN-10: 1421404400
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421403014
Print-ISBN-10: 1421403013

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 8 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794700416
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Fabulous Dark Cloister

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Subject Headings

  • Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Pericles.
  • Wroth, Mary, Lady, ca. 1586-ca. 1640. Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania.
  • Reformation -- England.
  • Sidney, Philip, Sir, 1554-1586. Arcadia.
  • Romances, English -- History and criticism.
  • Protestantism and literature -- History -- 16th century.
  • Romanticism -- England -- History -- 16th century.
  • Religion and literature -- England -- History -- 16th century.
  • Spenser, Edmund, 1552?-1599. Faerie queene.
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