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  • Religion, Allegory, and Literacy in Early Modern England, 1560-1640: The Control of the Word
  • James S. Baumlin
John S. Pendergast . Religion, Allegory, and Literacy in Early Modern England, 1560–1640: The Control of the Word. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006. x + 188 pp. index. illus. bibl. $89.95. ISBN: 0–7546–5147–9.

In its printer's preface, the 1540 edition of the Colet-Lily grammar announces the king's personal interest in spreading literacy: "And as his maiesty purposeth to establyshe his people in one consent and harmony of pure and tru relygion: so his tender goodnness toward the youth and chyldhode of his realm, entendeth to haue it brought vp vnder one absolute and vniform sorte of lernynge" (77). Significantly, the above passage links "vniform . . . learning" with "tru relygion," an equation that — as John S. Pendergast argues — led to "the mutual normalizing of both reading skills and religious beliefs" (78) in early modern England. Pendergast rightly emphasizes article six of the Anglican Church's XXXIX Articles, which affirmed that "salvation is textual — it is based upon text and is found in the literal, unadorned Word of God" (44). Indeed, "the real social impact of the Reformation can be found" (44) in this particular article. Along with expanding literacy — that is, making scripture accessible to a broader lay readership — Protestants had to "redefine the act of reading" (45) in ways that "normalized" meaning in accordance with Reformed doctrine. In this respect, the Reformation marked not just the "normalizing" but the "sacralization of literacy" (13).

For their model of "normalized" reading, Protestants turned to Augustine, whose De Doctrina Christiana distinguishes between strictly denotative, "literal" (that is, non-figurative) readings of scripture and higher, "Literal" readings that take spiritual or figurative meaning as the "principle intention of the Holy Ghost" (as John Donne so aptly put it). In this manner, Augustine replaced "the Manichean anti-allegorical method of reading scripture 'literally' (in the sense of non-figuratively) with a highly allegorical and rhetorical method" (10) that ensured the doctrinal coherence of all scripture. As Pendergast notes, Augustine's model of reading became vitally instrumental in the spread of Christianity among his own culture's pagan intelligentsia; that is, allegoresis "allowed Augustine and his followers to interpret the Bible in ways which some new converts would understand (since they were based on familiar texts) yet which would change their belief system in favor of Christianity" (13). And just as allegory served the early church (again, by establishing the doctrinal coherence of scripture), so it served Protestants in their own attempts at "normalizing," not just scriptural exegesis, but reading (and the teaching of reading) generally. Pendergast's point about Protestant allegory is thus well-taken: "An understanding of the history of allegory is essential to recognizing the historical changes which have occurred to literacy, for the study of its history reveals that allegory was appropriated as an important reading strategy at key moments when a crisis occurred to the dominant paradigm, resulting in a need to make renewed sense of the culture's understanding of the world and its worldly texts" (21–22).

Pendergast ends his book with several literary applications, including chapters on the Augustinian hermeneutic of Donne's sermons; Spenser's "Letter to Raleigh" [End Page 653] as a model both of reading and of courtly behavior; and Shakespeare's parody of grammar-school Latin in Love's Labour's Lost. While modern scholars typically point to the development of the English vernacular at this time, Pendergast reminds us of "the centrality of Latin to early modern culture," as evidenced by the fact that "England had an official Latin grammar . . . ten years before an official English Bible" (78). English literacy (and, by extension, Protestantism) rested upon grammar-school Latin: hence the chapter on Shakespeare.

While its price (perhaps, too, its occasionally labored prose) might keep the book off of most scholars' private shelves, nonetheless Religion, Allegory, and Literacy in Early Modern England will prove informative to those whose specific research interests include Reformation theology, Tudor grammar, and the development of a distinctively English Protestant mode of allegory.

James S. Baumlin
Missouri State University


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pp. 653-654
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Archived 2009
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