In the seventeenth century, the largely Protestant nation of England was preoccupied with its Catholic subjects. They inspired more prolific and harsher criticism and more elaborate attempts at legal regulation than did any other minority group. To understand this phenomenon, Frances E. Dolan probes the verbal and visual representations of Catholics and Catholicism and the uses to which these were put during three crises in Protestant-Catholic relations: the gunpowder plot (1605), Queen Henrietta Maria's open advocacy of Catholicism in the 1630s and 1640s, and the popish and meal tub plots (1678-1680). She uses each crisis as a jumping-off point, an opportunity for speculation, as did contemporary writers. Drawing on political and legal writings and offering fresh readings of literary texts such as Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, Dolan shows how often Catholics and Catholicism were linked to disorderly women.
Dolan maintains that since Catholics were members of many English families and communities and prominent at court, the threat they offered was precisely that they could not be readily isolated and assigned to a category -- both laws and polemic struggled to identify Catholics, but never succeeded in establishing a clear line between Catholics and everyone else. In seventeenth-century England, Dolan says, the threat of Catholicism lay in the tension between the foreign and the familiar, the different and the same.