- Anthony Munday and the Catholics, 1560-1633
In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, England was a dangerous place for Roman Catholics. The penal laws laid heavy fines on those who did not attend weekly Protestant religious services and, at an extreme, set capital punishment not only for priests, but also for those who sheltered or helped them, the government treating Catholics as actual or potential traitors. Captured priests and laypersons who appeared on the official recusancy rolls were the most visible of the Catholics, but there were many other Catholics who kept a lower profile, including "Church papists"who avoided the charge of recusancy by going through the motions of conformity. At a time of solidifying nationalism, loyalty was a key issue, both for the authorities and for English Catholics who wished to live unmolested—especially in the light of the Papal Bull of 1570 excommunicating Queen Elizabeth and the papal assertion of a temporal authority superior to regal sovereignty. Most Catholics tried not only to avoid the harsh penalties of law, but also to demonstrate their national allegiance—especially in the wake of the Spanish invasion attempt of 1588 and the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. In this religious context, Donna Hamilton argues, the prolific, if second-rank, writer Anthony Munday adopted a survival strategy that involved balancing a continuing commitment to his Catholic faith with an English loyalism, exploiting opportunities to criticize not only hard-line or fanatical Catholic resistance but also the continuing oppression of Catholics and the relentless assaults on traditional Catholic culture.
Hamilton admirably handles the task of examining and interpreting the varied works Munday composed, translated, or revised over the course of a writing career of some four decades—for example, plays, civic entertainments, chivalric romances, religious polemic, and urban chorography. She offers a nuanced analysis of Munday's celebration of Catholic cultural plenitude, universalism, and triumphalism through translations of continental romances. She teases out the Catholic ideology implicit in the city entertainments and in the revisions he made for two different editions of Stow's Survey of London (1618 and 1633), the former offering him an opportunity to express the City's resistance to monarchical encroachment on traditional rights and liberties and the latter allowing him to underscore the traditional Catholic foundation of the modern urban and civic culture. She has a particularly insightful discussion of the religious and political complexities and topicalities of the dramas in which he had a hand, especially the plays on Sir Thomas More, the Earl of Huntingdon, and Sir John Oldcastle. Given the relatively scant attention such texts have been given, her keen analysis of them is a welcome one.
The large argument Hamilton is pursuing with regard to Munday's Catholicism opens up his writing to fresh understanding. In a context in which Catholics needed to present sociopolitical criticism through the self-protective strategies of rhetorical indirection, equivocation, and disguise, Munday, [End Page 323] Hamilton argues, consistently introduced into works that ostensibly supported the Protestant hegemony elements that subverted it, responding not only just to the general situation of Catholics in his time, but also to specific historical moments such as the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Jacobean-Spanish Match negotiations. Hamilton calls Munday a "skilful equivocator"using the "methods of rhetorical indirection"(p. xvii), but this description might also apply to other writers as well—Jonson and Shakespeare, for example. Scholars have, over the years, developed ways of decoding literary texts written in a period of censorship and political oppression. What Donna Hamilton has done in her examination of the life and writings of Anthony Munday is a fine example of historically informed close reading, but the larger picture that emerges of Elizabethan and early Stuart culture is also quite valuable.