Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

England's Adam: The Short Career of the Giant Samothes in English Reformation Thought

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

England's Adam: The Short Career of the Giant Samothes in English Reformation Thought

Article excerpt

1. It was John Bale, dramatist, virulent anti-Catholic and Bishop of Ossory, who first introduced English audiences to their ancestral father, Samothes. His popular history, The Actes of English Votaryes (1546) described an ancient hero, the offspring of Japheth and grandson of Noah, who made his way to Western Europe and fathered the English nation. Bale's audience seemed unperturbed with the author's description of their ancestors, the Samotheans, as giants.[1] There was, after all, Biblical precedence in Genesis 6; the Geneva Bible of 1560 was categorical when it told its readers that, 'there were giants in the earth in those days.' Significantly the King James' version of 1611 (with perhaps a nod toward the Samotheans) added the words, 'and after that.' Thus the colossus Samothes was launched on his career as an English patriarch, not only in the works of Bale but others including Shakespeare, Philip Sidney and the enormously influential Raphael Holinshed. In Sidney's Old Arcadia, the doleful shepherd Philisides tells us that he is from the land of Samothea, a place 'so famous that, telling you I am of that, I shall not need to extend myself further in telling you what the country is.'[2]

2. It seemed, on the face of it, that the English nation and its men of letters had taken an immediate liking to their recovered ancestor, a liking that is not hard to appreciate since Samothes provided them with an heroic parentage that measured up to anything claimed in the classical world. He also gave them a direct root to Noah, a patriarch who was seen as the second Adam, father of all the postdiluvian world. In spite of these benefits by the end of the sixteenth century the career of Samothes was in terminal decline. John Stow's Annales claimed that the founding of England was 'irrecoverable,' and then in the first decade of the seventeenth century the great William Camden dismissed the legend entirely.[3] It has previously been tempting to see the myth of Samothes as being killed offby a new wave of more sober-minded and professional historians. However, it will be argued here that we should not regard writers such as Stow and Camden as Reformation giant-killers. They were not involved in an act of debunking for the sake of a more proof-driven history per se. Far from being unhappy with the mythical nature, or stature, of Samothes they were instead expressing major misgivings with the sources, elsewhere they seemed perfectly content to accept histories that were equally as fabulous. This article sets out to explore the short but remarkable career of Samothes and will argue that the giant was not killed by a shot from the sling of a more modern scholarship that refused to place credence in the mythological; rather he tumbled to his death because he was standing on shaky foundations.

3. The story of Samothes as set out in Reformed national histories may be summarized as follows. After the flood Noah took his three sons to the top of a mountain and there he divided the unpopulated world between them. The three portions were Europe, Asia and Africa. In 1587, William Harrison realized that this traditional account needed an update and he made a half-hearted attempt to incorporate the New World into his schema by relating that America was part of the division, though he seems reluctant to dwell on who exactly was allotted this land and the subject is passed over rather hastily. However, Harrison explains that before the flood there were no great seas, so St Augustine need not have troubled himself when he pondered the mystery of how animals that lived on remote islands could have made their way to the Ark.[4] Europe was given to Japheth and when it was latter divided among his progeny it was Samothes, the sixth son, whom the Bible calls Mesach and whom Julius Caesar named Dis, who received both France and England and became the father of the Celtic race. Samothes went on to become a model monarch teaching his people not only the course of the stars but 'many other matters incident to the moral and politic government of man's life. …

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