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  • Elizabethan England’s Other Reformation of Manners
  • Edwin Davenport

In the first edition of The Anatomie of Abuses, Philip Stubbes took what might seem an uncharacteristically moderate position. “Whereas in the process of this my book,” he wrote in “A Preface to the Reader,” “I have entreated of certain exercises . . . as namely of plays and interludes, of dancing, gaming and such other like: I would not have thee so, to take me, as though my speeches tended, to the overthrow and utter disliking of all kinds of exercises in general: that is nothing my simple meaning.” 1 As he pointed out further, it was not the activity but its abuse that he deplored, not gaming but greed, not dancing but lewdness, not stage plays but idleness. Even plays and interludes, for which he expressed particular concern in the text proper, could be “very honest and very commendable exercises, being used and practiced in most Christian common weals, as which contain matter (such they may be) both of doctrine, erudition, good example and wholesome instruction: And may be used in time and place convenient, as conducible to example of life and reformation of manners” (A, preface).

Perhaps Stubbes was thinking here of didactic Protestant dramas, many written by ministers, like Mary Magdalen, The Longer thou Livest the More Fool Thou Art, Lusty Juventus, or New Custom. By the 1580s, however, stage plays were no longer appropriate vehicles for communicating Protestant doctrine, and as the rest of Stubbes’s text indicates, the distinction between exercises and their abuse was difficult to maintain. 2 His rhetoric in the book seldom approaches the balance he achieved in its first preface. Indeed, this introduction was included only in the first edition of 1583. Another edition printed three months later lacks it, as do all five subsequent editions published in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This absence makes later versions of The Anatomie of Abuses less complicated, more easily the product of the rigorous Puritan reformer Stubbes is often considered to have been. As the first preface reminds us, however, in the sixteenth century complete hostility towards games and recreations was by no means the only position people concerned [End Page 255] with the moral and spiritual condition of their society could take, even persons as enthusiastic as Stubbes.

The reformation of manners to which Stubbes referred in his preface and which he pursued in The Anatomie was most clearly manifested in the attention directed toward regulating traditional or popular customs and pastimes. 3 Closely associated with the religious Reformation, like it the reformation of manners progressed neither quickly nor simply. Various forms and practices persisted or survived, were redefined or renovated, underwent a quick execution or died of their own, some even before “thorough-going” critics demanded the prohibition of any practice that implied Papism, unsound doctrine, or ignorance. I will argue in this essay that, as Stubbes’s first preface hints, another reformation of manners was possible, for we must not let the contemporaneous hostility toward traditional customs and popular games blind us to the complex reformulations that competed with it during Elizabeth’s reign. The associations of traditional entertainments and practices, so important in determining whether an activity was “abused” and as rationales in the attempted regulation of custom and play were, nonetheless, never stable. If a host of theologians and ministers were ready to disallow a custom for its pagan connections or unsavory character, others could appeal to tradition or its social utility to preserve it. 4 The redefinition and regulation of custom depended on the invention of affiliations; this made it a matter of competition. And, as we will see, some of the most important connections made by moderate commentators and divines in this other reformation of manners involved the kind of person associated with traditional customs and pastimes. Social and moral categories organized this set of practices, creating distinctions in traditionally shared activities, widening the gap between elite and popular culture.

The Elizabethan Reformation

The second English Reformation (Patrick Collinson’s phrase), begun in 1559, clearly outlawed what were fundamentally the products of traditional, Catholic culture. 5 The missal itself was replaced by the Book of Common Prayer (1559) and...

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