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  • Music and Religious Compromise in John Bale's Plays
  • Katherine Steele Brokaw (bio)

In John Bale's 1538 allegorical history play, the titular, idealized Proto-Protestant King Johan describes how the clergy have mentally and financially impoverished his country: "Than for Englandes cause I wyll be sumewhat playne. / Yt is yow, Clargy, that hathe her in dysdayne. / With yowre Latyne howres, serymonyes and popetly playes" (ll. 413-15).1 Throughout Bale's theatrical Protestant polemic, "Latyne howres" and other types of Catholic ceremony are performed and derided, and these musical and sacramental representations iterate the king's point that Roman practice "decayes" God's holy word. King Johan disparages "howres, serymonyes," and "playes," but the extant oeuvre of arguably England's greatest early Protestant playwright reveals that Bale was conflicted about such things. While King Johan's antimusical stance resembles Bale's prose polemics—"masses, ryngynges, synginges" are "heythynshe wares" in one tract, for example—in his morality drama Three Laws , music is used to restore order to the church, and the biblical God's Promises is structured around liturgical antiphons.2 Bale's plays, and his other writings, disclose that despite his well-earned critical reputation as a fanatic, the playwright is moderate and compromising when it comes to religious music.3 Bale's maneuvering exposes the flexibility and contentiousness of acoustic issues in early Tudor religious and theatrical contexts. His work contributes to contemporary conversations about music and hearing in conflicting ways, and those very contradictions expose the complexities of early Reformation debates about sacred and secular aurality.

When Bale composed his dramas in the 1530s, he was a newly converted Protestant; his proximity to traditional religion was temporal as well as geographic. Born in Suffolk in 1495, Bale grew up in a region full of [End Page 325] practicing Lollards. He was resistant to reformed thought, and his parents sent him to the Carmelite House in Norwich when he was twelve. At the monastery, the youthful Bale was trained in sacred music—the antiphons, anthems, and chants of Catholic rite—and he was likely involved in the dramatic productions for which the order was well known. He remained with the Norwich Carmelites until going up to Cambridge in 1514, as a member of the order. Bale's early writings, all entirely orthodox, reveal a fascination with religious-musical experience, and one of his hymns to the Virgin, written in 1526, survives. As a Tudor playwright who understood the efficacy of religious drama, Bale would go on to refashion the morality plays of his Suffolk youth, and the cycle drama that had been popular among the Norwich Carmelites. Bale's break with Catholicism—at the behest of a Suffolk Protestant courtier—likely occurred around 1533, while he was a Carmelite prior of the White Friars at Ipswich. Pursuing his passion for reform, he at last left the Carmelites in 1536 and moved to London, where his career as Protestant playwright and polemicist began.

Bale's shift to radical religious politics came with significant personal risks. The consequences of his conversion and fiery promotion of reform included two exiles: the first to Wesel, Germany, in 1540, after Henry VIII executed Bale's friend and patron Thomas Cromwell, and again to Basel after the assumption of Queen Mary in 1553, at which time Bale had been bishop of Ossory in Kilkenny, Ireland. While most of his plays were written in the late 1530s, "Bale and his Felowes," as his company of actors was called, continued to perform the plays until the reign of Elizabeth, and Bale had many of them printed while in exile.

Like Bale, many of the actors in his company were brought up in monasteries or cathedral schools and trained in liturgical music. The characterization of that sort of liturgical music as a clerical practice meant to dupe congregants into blind submission is typical of Protestant anticeremonialism, and Bale quickly adapted an antimusical stance in his early prose polemics. The fissures created by Bale's conversion—his early passion for the very rites and ceremonies he would later be obliged to condemn—produce a divided religious identity that gains external efficacy in the public sphere by the...


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