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Heresy, Literature, and Politics in Early Modern English Culture

By MacCulloch, Diarmaid | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Heresy, Literature, and Politics in Early Modern English Culture


MacCulloch, Diarmaid, The Catholic Historical Review


Heresy, Literature, and Politics in Early Modern English Culture. Edited by David Loewenstein and John Marshall. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2006. Pp. x, 318. $90.00.)

This coherent and useful set of essays could be read with profit alongside Alexandra Walsham's recent Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500-1700. Even in the unified Western Latin Church before the Reformation, it was difficult enough to define heresy, when there was no one agreed description of the miracle of the Mass, or when expounding the doctrine of apostolic poverty might provide evidence of sanctity or a reason for death at the stake. Once the Western Church fractured, matters became much more complicated-though for Catholics loyal to the Pope, they were simplified.

Charles V burned the first Protestants for heresy in 1523 before Protestantism had even been named. The first case-study here (from David Loewenstein) deals with one of the most remarkable English Protestant martyrs, Anne Askew, who walked out on her Catholic husband and whose heroically phlegmatic account of her tortures by leading courtiers of Henry VIII belies its contemporary male editor's characterization of her womanly frailty. Problems emerged for Protestant admirers of Askew's steadfastness, who immediately found that there were people that they would like to burn too. This uncomfortable realization necessitated much discussion of when such an extreme sanction against doctrinal variation might operate, and what should be done otherwise. Surprisingly rarely did Protestants accuse Catholics of heresy (as opposed to error, corruption, and a penchant for repression and cruelty), so Catholics figure little in these essays. English Reformers' anger and agonizing largely concerned those who took the Reformation too far. Carrie Euler deals with the first wave, mostly Dutch or German immigrants who brought with them a "Melchiorite" Christology so high that they insisted that the incarnate Christ had celestial and not earthly flesh; three Melchiorites are known to have been burned in Edward VI's time (Euler has missed one of the three). Both Elizabeth I and James I burned others, though they are not much dealt with here. Instead we have two engrossing considerations of the Family of Love from Christopher Marsh and Peter Lake.The Familists, elitist mystics, sheltered comfortably within established churches wherever they lived, and Puritans were infuriated at being treated like traitors to the Church of England while the outrageously heretical Familists seemed to enjoy powerful protection right up as far as the Queen herself (historians are now arguing as to whether Elizabeth I had Familist sympathies).

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