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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.2 (2002) 258-263

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Book Review

Common Prayer:
The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England

Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England. By Ramie Targoff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. xiii + 162 pp.

Common Prayer shares with such studies as John N. Wall's Transformations of the Word: Spenser, Herbert, Vaughan and Achsah Guibbory's Ceremony and Community from Herbert to Milton: Literature, Religion, and Cultural Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England, as well as with the pathbreaking work of Debora Kuller Shuger, a concern with Renaissance religion qua religion, a sympathetic (or even, as in Wall's case, an admittedly not disinterested) respect for spiritual motivations. As such, it is part of a reaction, developing during the last decade, against the political determinism or reductionism of much New Historical criticism that regarded self-descriptions of the established religion as inevitable forms of false consciousness requiring salutory demystification. Of course, George Herbert, Ramie Targoff's culminating example of the relations between common prayer and the devotional lyric, has long had his share of critics (such as Heather A. R. Asals in Equivocal Predication: George Herbert's Way to God) who approach him in a spiritually "interested" way, as well as of critics (such as Michael C. Schoenfeldt in Prayer and Power: George Herbert and Renaissance Courtship) who emphasize the contiguity of the social-political and religious domains, if not the reduction of the latter to the former.

Targoff's book also shares with Wall's, Guibbory's, and Shuger's work, and with Judith Maltby's recent historical study, Prayer Book and People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England, a focus on the established church and its conformist membership—rather than on the Puritans and nonconformists, who have received a preponderance of literary-historical attention for decades—and an effort to see that church from the inside, not through the lens of hot Protestant criticism of it as a church concerned with mere matter, not spirit; external practices, not internal belief. This is a crucial step, at the very least because religious institutions have got to be more complex than their enemies' characterizations of them.

Finally, Common Prayer shares with Wall's, Guibbory's, and Maltby's studies an emphasis not on theology or doctrine per se—which may or may not have [End Page 258] been salient in the consciousness of churchgoers—but on the devotional practices they routinely experienced and on the spiritual community shaped by use of and commitment to the Book of Common Prayer. This attention to liturgical form, so central a target of dissatisfaction with the established church, tends to foreground the divide between wholehearted and more lukewarm participants, in a manner counter to the work of such historians as Peter Lake and Patrick Collinson, which tends to link moderate Puritans with the pre-Laudian national church—if tensely at times—on the basis of Calvinist theology (at least until the Arminian controversy), social conservatism, loyalty to the godly prince, and hope for further reformation from within.

Targoff's first goal in her investigation of "common prayer as cultural practice" is to "complicate the binary between Catholicism and publicness on the one hand, and Protestantism and privacy on the other" (5). She challenges one of the "governing premises of our understanding of early modern religious culture: that the private sphere fostered by the Protestant Reformation represented a powerful alternative to the superficial and depersonalized practices of the medieval Catholic Church" (5). She shows (as Wall does) that the Catholic Church actually encouraged an inward focus on private devotions during the Latin Mass, rather than the laity's attention to words it could not understand; in contrast, the liturgy of the English church as shaped by Cranmer "subsume[d] personal and idiosyncratic worship within a collective devotional performance" (16). Targoff further complicates this complication—the suggestion that the "interiority" associated with Reformation Protestantism does not apply to the English church—and reevaluates the commonly held idea that the Elizabethan Settlement required...


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