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Reviewed by:
  • Reading Humility in Early Modern England by Jennifer Clement
  • Emily Cock
Clement, Jennifer, Reading Humility in Early Modern England, Farnham, Ashgate, 2015; hardback; pp. xi, 153; R.R.P. £60.00; ISBN 9781472453778.

Jennifer Clement has produced a compelling and well-written case for humility as an important and underappreciated virtue in early modern England. In contrast to studies focused on transgression that read humility as necessarily a cowering emotion, Clement argues for humility as a productive means of compliance, that enables greater knowledge of self and God, and particular forms of agency. She discusses humility in the individual’s relationship to God, first and foremost, but also to other people (of superior, equal, or lower status), to the self, and to the natural world, distinguishing between religious and social humility while also conveying how they intersected. Her focus is spiritual rather than bodily humiliation in texts published between 1547 and 1684, and she argues that although humility was employed for a variety of purposes, views on it ‘remain fairly consistent’ (p. 17) throughout the period she examines. She engages with predominantly Protestant texts, but considers ways in which Protestant notions of humiliation drew on Catholic ideas, and how it appeared in translation, for example, through Katherine Parr’s conversion narrative (where conversion was itself framed as a humbling experience).

Chapter 1 outlines how humility and pride were defined in relation to one another, with humility understood as ‘a virtue that regulates self-love rather than abolishing it’ (p. 31). As such, it was as important for elites in dealing with their social inferiors as it was for those supposed to be humbled by their superiors. As all were humbled in the face of God, it also provided an additional positive function in alleviating any abjection that might arise from the temptation to compare oneself unfavourably with anyone but God. In this and the second chapter, hypocrisy and false humility are also key concerns, thus engaging with the ongoing problem of how outward show and interior experiences were reconciled in early modern society. Clement’s close reading of false humility and hypocrisy in Eastward Ho! finds humility [End Page 203] achieved through humiliation received more positively than we might tend to read it today.

Chapter 3 (which this reviewer found the most interesting) considers the way in which John Donne stages the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions as a repetitive, ‘ongoing experience of humiliation’ (p. 67). Here, ‘humility is … not about abjection but about correctly understanding one’s place in relation to God’ (p. 71), with continuing humiliation (often achieved through bodily pain) necessary for compelling constant consideration of the individual’s relation to God. This allows each individual to ‘participate in the process of salvation’ (p. 59). Humility in the face of God counters not only excessive pride but also despair, since the latter is ‘a sin that casts doubt on God’s grace and ability to forgive’ (p. 71). Humiliation is also read in relation to Christ’s sacrifice through a shameful death: it enables His death to be reparative for the humiliated or persecuted; a useful corollary to its more widely considered role within shaming punishments.

Chapter 4 examines how two queens, Katherine Parr and Elizabeth I, utilised humility in their published religious writings. Clement argues ‘that both writers articulate a deep and humble sense that their status is a gift from God, not derived from their own merits, in order to support their claims to authority and agency’ (p. 80). They were thus able to perform a humble relation to God, allowing for their femininity, yet reminding the queens’ subjects that they occupy the same humble position in regard to Him, and to the queen through divine right.

Finally, Clement considers Thomas Tryon’s significantly later writing on stewardship and humility in humanity’s relationship to non-human animals. Querying human dominion over animals, Tryon argued that farming and related occupations should be pursued with greater humility toward all of God’s creation, and God, and mindful of the fact that man was only granted dominion over the Earth after his own humiliating fall.

Emily Cock
The University sity of Winchester