Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Liturgy and Literature in the Making of Protestant England

This is in part because, despite criticism's frequently professed desires to "make the past strange," it much more often makes it overly familiar. The depth, passion, and occasional ferocity of early modern religious belief simply doesn't resonate in a secular modern culture committed to toleration and agnosticism, so we tend to reduce its alienness by overlooking it, or translating it into terms we are more comfortable with. But those are by definition not the terms in which these things existed and operated historically; when we use them as the basis of our critical practice, we are looking not at the past but an image of modernity in hose and ruffs.

The influence of the Book of Common Prayer is everywhere, though you may not realize it--it is responsible, for example, the phrases "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," and "dearly beloved, we are gathered here today..." But the author of Liturgy and Literature in the Making of Protestant England, Timothy Rosendale, believes that it has been insufficiently explored as a literary document.

Rosendale gives a brief account of the Book's creation, depicting it as an attempt--or rather, a series of attempts--at negotiating the bitter Protestant-Catholic tensions of post-Henry VIII England. Interestingly, he argues that much of the Book's efficacy comes from its calculated ambiguity that, like Elizabeth I's public religious persona, deliberately left room for residual Catholic practice. By creating a national uniform liturgy in English, it also helped to create and bolster an English national identity, negotiating the need for the monarch's supremacy over religious practice and deeply held Protestant beliefs about the importance of individual priesthood. In the final chapters, Rosendale turns to the Book's literary influence, tracing its impact on Sidney, Shakespeare, Milton and Hobbes. I particularly liked the chapter on political power in Shakespeare's histories, in which Rosendale argues that the history plays, from Richard II to Henry VI, map the transition to a monarchical system in which power is maintained through representation and symbolism, mirroring the Prayerbook's vision of the Eucharist.

What I appreciated most about Rosendale's book is what I have quoted above. One of my deepest misgivings about modern criticism is a sneaking suspicion that it does not treat texts seriously, using them as templates for various ideological, political, or philosophical agendas. While Rosendale happily points out the positive aspects of various critical schools (for example, he praises the way in which New Historicism has "emphasized... the idea that the literary is not walled off from other spheres of culture"), he is careful to treat the religious impulses that created the Book of Common Prayer as genuine and not outward manifestations of psychological or political pressures.

Furthermore, books like this (and too a lesser extent, McCoy's) allay my fears that scholarly language need be obtuse or somehow "beyond me;" not only is Rosendale's text highly engaging and fluid (his paraphrases of his critical sources tend to be far more lucid than they), but occasionally he'll do something like this:

"...even the Zwinglian sacrament is clearly set apart to operate in a different symbolic register; after all, a completely desacralized Eucharist would be nothing more than a snack(rament).


1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

This actually sounds really interesting.