Spenser and the Reformation.
Spenser, a contemporary of Sidney and Shakespeare, was unusual for a poet of his time. Unlike all other poets and authors, Spenser wrote because he wanted to be a poet, and nothing else. And he accomplished this, becoming one of the most important British poets. It is even more remarkable that he did so having grown up middle class, and without any of the privlige of Chaucer or Sidney. He did, however, receive a Cambridge education, and served as the secretary to some prominent British men.
The Faerie Queen
He will be most remembered for The Faerie Queen, a long, narrative epic-romance written in the late 1500s. We would never have had time to read it, or the usual required Books I and II. But if you are an English major, you will most definitely have to read Book I of the Faerie Queen at some point. It is an epic poem written as an allegory. An allegory means a poem or narrative in which all object, people and events are a thinly veiled disguise for something else, usually something historical, political or religious. The Faerie Queen is an allegory about the Reformation, and the battle of Protestants to gain control over the Roman Catholic Church in England. The great hero is the Faerie Queen, who is Queen Elizabeth, but she and her court are held captive by Evil (Roman Catholic Church), and must be liberated for the true light and Truth of Protestantism to reign. In Book I, the Red Cross Knight (the Britith everyman) must travel and battle many forces of evil that come in various allegorical forms.
Anyhow, the bottom line is that it is an important work.
The Protestant Reformation
Most of his literary life, Spenser was concerned with the perpetuation of Protestantism in England. This time, the late 1500s, was crucial for Protestants in England.
The Reformation was very new to England. It was only in the early 1500s that King Henry VIII was not granted a divorce from the pope, so he divorced from the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England. From the mid-1500s on, all citizens of England had to pledge allegiance to the King (or Queen) and the Church of England, and renounce the Roman Catholic Church. Don’t forget that for many centuries up until the mid 1500s, England was Roman Catholic.
There would remain terrible friction between Catholics and Protestants until the late 1700s when Tolerance laws started to go into effect. There were times when England broke out into Civil war that threatened to destroy the country over the issue of Catholicism and Protstantism, and also various factions of Protestantism. After bloody civil wars, a Protestant faction of regicides beheaded King Charles I, and from the 1630s until 1660, England was for the first and only time, a Republic, with a Protestant prime minister and paraliament.
The Reformation is a very long and complicated history that is very interesting to study. It is also very important to understand some of it if you are interested in Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, Restoration literature and eighteenth century literature.
The Protestant Turn Inward
The effects of the Protestant Reformation on British literature cannot be understated. Along with the printing press, Protestantism brought a different, more inward looking faith to England.
Many call the 1500 – 1600s “the turn inward.” The Protestant faith preached seeking for God as an inner light, the direct access between the worshipper and God. The Reformation abolished most of the sacraments and stripped away the many complex offices of the Catholic Church, seeing these as obstacles between the faithful and God. Faith, in many ways, was simplified. This is understandable, since the roots of the Reformation in Martin Luther derived from a rebellion against the excesses of the Catholic Church.
Protestantism also revolted against much of the mysticism and superstition of the Catholic Church, which Protestants felt too far distorted the clear Word of God.
READING: Reading the Bible for the First Time.
Most importantly, with the first time in which the Bible is published and bound, and literate people begin reading the Bible, Protestants placed a large emphasis upon the Word as opposed to the spectacle (like the mass / Eucharist) of Catholicism. The shift from hearing to reading the Bible is very significant. All kinds of ontological and literary shifts occur rapidly as people begin to read the Bible for the first time.
A big thing that happens with reading the Bible is the growth of INTERPRETATION. Bible interpretation in general grows rapidly at this time. But for the first time, more and more people begin to examine text and examine themselves with self-conscious interpretation. There is no doubt that the self-conscious, inwardly aware character so prevalent in Shakespeare is a product of the new Protestantism in England at the time.
Entry filed under: British Literature.