The Defence of Religious Orthodoxy in John Heywood's the Pardoner and the Frere

By Caputo, Nicoletta | Yearbook of English Studies, January-July 2008 | Go to article overview

The Defence of Religious Orthodoxy in John Heywood's the Pardoner and the Frere


Caputo, Nicoletta, Yearbook of English Studies


In The Pardoner and the Frere an attack on religious abuses is combined with a positive belief in the Church and a defence of the Catholic faith. Corrupt churchmen are satirized and the need for religious reform is stressed, an issue in which King Henry VIII is called upon for support in a way that, on closer examination, appears ambiguous and not without a hint of criticism. Thus the interlude is not only 'an exercise in persuasion', but, in keeping with the dynamics of Tudor household drama, it is also 'a vehicle for persuasion', and its various, subtle, persuasive strategies arise from the dramatist's desire to see the abuses in the ecclesiastical institution amended.

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John Heywood was undoubtedly an exceptional entertainer at the court of Henry VIII, and, as one of his epigrams testifies, he wished to be remembered as 'Heywood with the mad merry wit'. (1) In this chapter, however, I want to focus on Heywood's 'serious' side, that is, on the political implications of one of his 'many mad plaies'. In the 1520s Heywood devoted a number of witty interludes to serious religious, political, and social issues. It was not unusual for Tudor dramatists to join in the political and religious debates taking place at court; they assumed an audience open to persuasion and, in pursuing their goals, felt free to offer counsel that was not entirely devoid of criticism or reproach. (2)

The Pardoner and the Frere is a perfect example of such an attitude, although critics have often considered it as mere entertainment. Robert W. Bolwell, for example, in 1921 declared that in The Pardoner and the Frere Heywood's 'purpose was to entertain, to make fun, not to denounce' and that 'the purpose of the play is entertainment, not edification'. (3) In 1964 T. W. Craik still felt that 'Heywood seems to have written this play wholly for the sake of its straightforward amusing situation'. (4) And in the following decade Joel B. Altman, in his classic study The Tudor Play of Mind (1978), ranked The Pardoner and the Frere with Johan Johan and argued that the two plays, 'though highly entertaining and nondidactic, are essentially irreverent farces'. (5) In the present discussion, however, I shall explore how The Pardoner and the Frere, though farcical, combines an attack on religious abuses with a positive belief in the Church and a defence of the Catholic faith: corrupt churchmen are satirized; the need for religious reform is stressed; and King Henry VIII is called upon for support in a way that, on closer examination, appears ambiguous and potentially critical.

The necessity for reform to put an end to the moral decay of the Church without trespassing on the limits of religious orthodoxy was a central commitment for the Christian humanists belonging to the so-called 'More circle'. Sir Thomas More, John Colet, and Desiderius Erasmus (who spent three extended periods in England, becoming a lifelong friend of More and Colet) (6) relentlessly attacked ecclesiastical abuses in their writings, on occasion with the resources of irony and satire. In his works and in his letters More repeatedly inveighed against clerical superstition and ignorance, and friars seemed to be his favourite target; (7) whereas Erasmus's Moriae encomium is a perfect example of how the satirical method could be usefully employed to censure the perversions of the evangelical message the author found in contemporary religious institutions. (8)

However, even if their criticism could sometimes sound harsh, for both More and Erasmus the condemnation of abuses was inseparable from, or rather took its origin in, an unwavering devotion to the Catholic Church. Their attacks were invariably directed at the abuse of respected institutions, not at the institutions themselves: as More asserted in The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer (1532), it is 'lawful to any man to mislike the misuse of every good thing'. (9) How a bitter, even irreverent, criticism of its abuses need not challenge loyalty to the ecclesiastical institution was explained by More in his defence of Erasmus's Moriae encomium:

For god be thanked, I never had that mind in my life to have holy saints, images or their holy relics out of reverence [.

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