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  • Mortal Thoughts: Religion, Secularity, and Identity in Early Modern Culture by Brian Cummings
  • Christopher Kendrick (bio)
Brian Cummings. Mortal Thoughts: Religion, Secularity, and Identity in Early Modern Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xv + 367. $99.00.

Brian Cummings’s new book contains an exceedingly rich collection of essays on writers and painters from More to Milton, Durer to Rembrandt, and on topics ranging from the forms of the soliloquy and of oaths to justifications of suicide and the experience of the body. As with his previous major book, The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace (Oxford, 2003), what sets this work apart from others on the “early early modern” (ca. 1500–1660) is its practical understanding of the period as intimately co-determined by Reformation and Renaissance movements: of Reformation as caught up in and animated by humanist textuality, and humanism as shaped from within and from afar by theological crisis. Though the theoretical outlook of the book is largely directed against secularizing stories of Renaissance or Reformation, and apparently shares in the conventional anti-teleologism of our own moment, it’s important to note that Cummings communicates a conviction about the unity [End Page 585] of the Renaissance as a single period in a way that is fairly rare. Few critics find it quite so natural, these days—leaving aside the matter of scholarly competence, if that’s possible—to move in a single essay from Durer and More to Rembrandt and Milton. In traversing the whole field so compellingly even while cutting it off from the putatively secularized modern, Cummings reinforces one’s belief in the Reformed Renaissance as an episode in some historical grand narrative in need of construction.

There are eight chapters in addition to the introduction, all of them free-standing essays. All are characterized by a high information-to-interpretation ratio, while offering layered, subtle readings of texts and sharp revaluations of oft-visited topics. The first chapter discusses Montaigne’s writing of himself in his Essais and a remarkable nude self-portrait by Durer (an ink and brush drawing, perhaps from 1503), and shows how both works, though sometimes treated as generic breakthroughs to the secular, are thoroughly informed by religious conceptions of mortality. Chapter 2 deals with Thomas More’s trial and conviction, and traces his move, under pressure of Henry’s break from Rome and perhaps against his will, to a notion of conscience more “plural, doubtful, fragile” (91), and less supported by the body of Christendom, the traditional church, than More had recognized as Lord Chancellor—to a notion of conscience as private, in fact, though Cummings does not quite say that. (In this chapter he is defending Robert Bolt’s play against the condescension of modern historians to its secularizing liberalism.) Chapter 3 traces the difficult paradoxes of identity enacted by Thomas Cranmer’s recantation, on the occasion of his martyrdom, of the previous recantation he had made in hopes of avoiding that occasion: which writing is the real Cranmer?; and treats as well the reverberation and reconstruction of this deed in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, where one begins perhaps to see a modern dissident Cranmer, persecuted for his ideological beliefs, through the public witness of the martyr. Chapter 4 makes an arresting case, in a discussion centered mainly on More, Foxe, and Shakespeare, for the apparent burgeoning of profane oaths as a reaction against all the oath-taking forced by religious political crisis on Tudor subjects, and sees a terrible, profane (hence still religious) space of privacy being wrung from or wrested for the subjected self, most memorably in Othello, Shakespeare’s most curse-infested play. Chapter 5 treats the form of the soliloquy, especially in Richard II, Hamlet, and Macbeth, and queries the notion that it might signify a new secular sense of the private self; rather it is an internal dialogue, staged before a dramatic audience but addressed to God, on questions of mortal being. Cummings turns next to the topic of providence and chance, and argues that—though Calvinist scripture, from the mid-sixteenth century, was rased of terms of chance (“cas,” “fortune,” “luck”)—still the more...


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pp. 585-588
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