Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

The Politics of Discourse in John Knox's the First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women

Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

The Politics of Discourse in John Knox's the First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women

Article excerpt

On the surface, John Knox's infamous The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558) seems a well-organized polemical treatise whose point is succinctly stated in the opening proposition: "To promote a Woman to beare rule, superioritie, dominion, or empire above any Realme, Nation, or Citie, is repugnant to Nature; contumelie to God, a thing most contrarious to his reveled will and approved ordinance; and finallie, it is the subversion of good Order, of all equitie and justice" (Knox 373). The women referred to here are Queen Mary Tudor and Mary of Guise, regent of Scotland. With the language of that proposition in mind, it is not difficult to see how many have condemned the notorious John Knox as anti-feminist (Greaves 160) and have found him "offensively insistent on the insurmountable inferiority of womankind" (Collinson 78). The discovery by feminist historians and literary scholars of this histrionic text has led many to emphasize the misogyny of its writer and see this mid-century reformer as a "grim ayatollah-like figure" (Kirk 11). These scholars often use The First Blast as an entry into sixteenth-century ideas on womankind and female rule, and the best scholarship in this vein is a study by Amanda Shephard devoted to the ongoing debate on womankind in the Renaissance to which John Knox contributed.

But this extraordinary tract has also been labeled a "resistance tract," giving permission to those who would disobey Queen Mary's papist (and gendered) reign to not merely disobey passively but to aggressively work for the overthrow of this cruel and idolatrous monarch (Dawson 131-53). Knox gets a double blow from biographer Jasper Ridley who labels him not only "a woman-hater" but also "a revolutionary firebrand" (265). But who exactly is to lead the revolution against the queen, for the tract is devoted almost entirely to condemning the reign of Mary Tudor? And to whom is this well-organized polemical treatise directed? These two questions are not always answered with close attention to the text, nor do scholars see the conflict between Knox's polemical performance and his prophetic pose.

The proposition of the argument is not difficult to understand. Furthermore, the tract is easily outlined, confirming that a position is being argued and that the audience as indifferent reader is expected to listen and judge, and be persuaded of the intellectual position of the polemicist. (1) Finally, someone is encouraged to act--or so it appears--on Knox's political and religious agenda. But determining precisely what is happening with the politics of the discourse, what this text longs to do, and who is or are its audience, is not, it seems to me, so easily discerned, especially when an enthusiasm for Knox's anti-feminism or for his resistance theory clouds what is happening in the discourse. After all, in the opening proposition (if read carefully) women bearing rule is less the issue than the sin of "promoting" women to rule. And, indeed, the fact that the tract is cast into the form of an academic debate, replete with a plethora of proofs, Knox writing in the style of the schools, problematizes how John Knox is so often perceived; that is, in the role of Old Testament prophet. The tract, then, might be addressed principally to those--some or all--who have promoted women to rule. But the picture becomes fuzzy when we sense the tension created, on the one hand, by a tract designed fundamentally as an academic dispute which "opens" the truth as Knox would have it and, on the other hand, by prophetic admonition to a sinful people in need of repentance and changed hearts.

In this essay, I want to step back from the rhetoric of scholars who condemn Knox's anti-feminism and do a close reading in order to describe and explore Knox's discursive performance. The ramification of reading that performance will inform our understanding of Knox's resistance theory.

After a lengthy opening which states the proposition and elaborates the issues so that readers may "rightlie consider" (374) what is at stake, Knox launches into the first part of the tract which makes two points and proves them with frequent citations: female rule is contrary to God's will, and female rule is subversive of political and social order and of justice. …

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