The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity

The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity

The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity

The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity


The Pain of Reformation argues that Edmund Spenser's 1590 Faerie Queene represents an extended meditation on emerging notions of physical, social, and affective vulnerability in Renaissance England. Histories of violence, trauma, and injury have dominated literary studies, often obscuring vulnerability, or an openness to sensation, affect, and aesthetics that includes a wide range of pleasures and pains. This book approaches early modern sensations through the rubric of the vulnerable body, explores the emergence of notions of shared vulnerability, and illuminates a larger constellation of masculinity and ethics in post-Reformation England.

Spenser's era grappled with England's precarious political position in a world tense with religious strife and fundamentally transformed by the doctrinal and cultural sea changes of the Reformation, which had serious implications for how masculinity, affect, and corporeality would be experienced and represented. Intimations of vulnerability often collided with the tropes of heroic poetry, producing a combination of defensiveness, anxiety, and shame. It has been easy to identify predictably violent formations of early modern masculinity but more difficult to see Renaissance literature as an exploration of vulnerability.

The underside of representations of violence in Spenser's poetry was a contemplation of the precarious lives of subjects in post-Reformation England. Spenser's adoption of the allegory of Venus disarming Mars, understood in Renaissance Europe as an allegory of peace, indicates that The Faerie Queene is a heroic poem that militates against forms of violence and war that threatened to engulf Europe and devastate an England eager to militarize in response to perceived threats from within and without. In pursuing an analysis, disarmament, and redefinition of masculinity in response to a sense of shared vulnerability, Spenser's poem reveals itself to be a vital archive of the way gender, violence, pleasure, and pain were understood.


Perhaps nothing says more about a poet than praise lavished by that poet upon a predecessor. “Sage and serious” was how John Milton, in Areopagitica, characterized Edmund Spenser, perhaps his greatest and most complex precursor. This oft-cited assessment casts Spenser as a moral poet, exemplary in his description of “true temperance,” and “a better teacher then Scotus or Aquinas.” Spenser’s wisdom resides in the instruction he provides with respect to a matter central to Milton’s own poetics: the knowledge of good and evil that endows the capacity to choose correctly between the two. Guyon’s sojourn to the Cave of Mammon in the second book of The Faerie Queene, the Legend of Temperance, exemplifies the principle of continence: “that he might see and know, and yet abstain.” Elsewhere, Milton expands on this: “He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian.”

The phrase “warfaring Christian” speaks to a persistent contradiction lodged at the heart of a religion responsible for extraordinary acts of violence and yet organized around a suffering divinity. What it meant to be a poet of virtue and a “warfaring” Christian was to prove especially complicated for all poets in post-Reformation England, even for Milton, whose thought and writing are characterized by an extreme and often violent clarity. Indeed, 1644 editions of Areopagitica emend “wayfaring” to “warfaring.” As editors point out, one finds biblical warrant for “wayfaring”: “And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called the way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools shall . . .

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