Please consider registering as a member of the International Spenser Society, the professional organization that supports The Spenser Review. There is no charge for membership; your contact information will be kept strictly confidential and will be used only to conduct the business of the ISS—chiefly to notify members when a new issue of SpR has been posted.

Ruth Ahnert, The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century
by Monika Fludernik

Ahnert, Ruth. The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 2013. x + 222 pp. ISBN: 978-1107040304. $90.00 cloth. 

It is almost a cliché that prisoners, especially political prisoners, spend their time in prison writing. Numerous are the prison memoirs of writers as widely separated in time as Boethius and Wole Soyinka or Breyten Breytenbach, memoirs in which the need to express oneself in literary production figures as a strategy to ward off boredom, loneliness and despair. Some incarcerated writers find themselves in the enviable position of having both the necessary implements (paper, writing tools, a table, sufficient light) and the leisure to compose their texts, and are officially allowed to indulge in their creative task; however, many others have to hide their work, write on scraps of paper, even on bark, use coal or blood to leave their marks, and have to smuggle their writings out of prison.

Prison literature, the topic of Ruth Ahnert’s book, has traditionally been an affair of political and religious “dissidents” (as we would say today) and of inmates from the educated classes. Only in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, thanks to general literacy, have ordinary prisoners as well as the intelligentsia been able to produce prison literature. Philip Priestley’s Jail Journeys and H. Bruce Franklin’s Prison Writing in 20th-Century America[1] testify to the emergence of inmate literature that affords insights not only into actual prison conditions but also into the attitudes of prisoners themselves.

Despite these differences of social background, and despite pronounced changes in conditions of incarceration between the early modern period and the last one hundred and fifty years, numerous recurring features of the carceral experience and of inmates’ strategies of survival and subversion can be noted across the centuries. Ahnert’s study of prison literature in the sixteenth century focuses on what she sees as a first quantitative peak of texts composed in legal confinement. This proliferation of prison literature—including literary, religious and doctrinal texts—no doubt depends on two major historical developments, both linked to the Reformation: more general literacy in the wake of the translation of the Bible, and religious controversialism.

Whereas there are only some two dozen incarcerated authors before 1500 to whom we can attribute specific texts composed during their confinement—Charles d’Orléans and Malory spring to mind—the sixteenth century produced a large number of texts written by political prisoners. Ahnert discusses Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, John Oldcastle, Margaret Douglas, John Harington and Thomas Howard as well as Elizabeth I. Religious activists also contributed to this emerging literature: on the Catholic side Ahnert discusses Sir Thomas More, John Fisher, William Rastell, and Nicholas Harpsfield, and on the Protestant side, Nicholas Ridley, John Bradford, John Frith, Stephen Gardiner, William Tyndale, Thomas Cranmer, and Anne Askew.

In her introductory first chapter, Ahnert situates her study in criticism of the prison in the wake of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975), arguing that, for the writers she analyzes, imprisonment was not merely a temporary period before trial but served as a penal strategy predating the late eighteenth-century invention of the penitentiary. This is perhaps an exaggeration in view of the fact that legal sentences, condemning defendants to specific terms in prison, did not exist. Yet the reality of having to survive in prison for several years was an experience that a large number of political and religious victims had to endure in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most famously perhaps in the experiences of Sir Walter Ralegh and John Bunyan.

Ahnert’s proposal to deal with the diverse literature produced in sixteenth-century confinement as a separate genre is arresting. In arguing her case, she is able to draw our attention to a variety of texts that are not usually considered in conjunction, and her analysis of the conditions of composition and publication is extremely insightful. Her survey of sixteenth-century prison writings includes, memorably, graffiti on the walls of cells in the Tower of London; penitential psalms composed in the Tower; co-composed coterie works (see below); letters and treatises written by various religious activists; as well as notable literary texts (poetry). Although she briefly notes the work of Thomas Dekker, Luke Hutton and William Fennor in her “Afterword,” her book unfortunately fails to treat at any length the considerable literature, including the cony-catching tales, composed by debtors. Since the majority of these wrote in the early seventeenth century, her focus on the sixteenth century leaves her with a selection of texts and authors whose primary focus are issues of belief and conscience rather than crime per se.

The second chapter, “Writing the Prison,” introduces a number of different genres of prison literature, starting with the graffiti on the walls of the Tower of London and proceeding to what she calls “graffiti on the page,” i.e. marginalia and comments or letters found in books of incarcerated authors. Both of these types of writing imply a community of prisoners and an internal or external audience. Thus the graffiti often tell us who was incarcerated in the same cell and added his or her name to the wall. Likewise, a letter on the flyleaf of a family Bible could be left to family members at death and thus survive. The chapter also briefly discusses Thomas More’s Tower Works, including annotations to his psalter. Ahnert emphasizes how More transcended the genre of prison literature by composing (especially with De Tristitia Christi) works of general devotional relevance. The final section of Chapter 2 concentrates on the psalms of Thomas Smith (Smith, Askew, but also Surrey and John Dudley, engaged in psalm translation) and on Wyatt’s penitential sonnets (especially cviii). Under the cloak of dealing with devotional texts, these authors were able to reflect on their own experience of incarceration, and (as Ahnert demonstrates), some of the translations actually went out of their way to emphasize and elaborate on references to imprisonment (see esp. 62-64).    

Chapter 3 (“Prison Communities”) introduces the importance of common goals: psychological and doctrinal support as well as companionship among incarcerated authors. Although communities of Protestants and Catholics inside and outside prison were central to the history of religious persecution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the chapter also includes the example of coterie writing in the work of Margaret Douglas and Thomas Howard, imprisoned by Henry VIII for having secretly contracted marriage (Margaret Douglas, Henry’s niece, was in the line of succession to the throne). The two lovers exchanged letters and co-composed poems (The Devonshire Manuscript) that were shuttled between their cells in the Tower.

Ahnert links this way of composition to coterie writing, in which manuscripts circulated among the nobility, excluding a wider audience of readers. Ahnert’s second subsection is devoted to John Harington’s Book of freendeship of Marcus Tullie Cicero (Arundel Harington manuscript), published after the first of the two imprisonments (1550) of this important courtier and servant of Elizabeth I. With a change of focus from a court setting to clerical circles, Ahnert’s final section discusses the way in which Nicholas Ridley, the Bishop of London, communicated with Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the wake of their arrest during the unrest surrounding the succession of Edward VI. Their correspondence, even after they had been transferred to different holding places, illustrates not merely their support of one another but also their communication with a considerable number of sympathizers.

The theme of community is elaborated in Chapter 4 (“Frendes abrode”), where the various networks of prisoners are discussed more extensively, including a consideration of the messengers used to convey letters to various addresses and of the smuggling of manuscripts out of prison. Ahnert notes the important biblical prototype for the writer in prison in the form of St Paul’s letters, which he used as means of preaching to his congregation despite his incarceration. She illustrates how the authorities were well aware of the existence of dissenter networks but often unable to police them. Communication occurred between prisoners and their supporters outside, but the authorities were unable to stop the practice since prisons were run by private enterprises and warders could be bribed, or were themselves in sympathy with prisoners as co-religionists.

The chapter describes how publication needed to be carefully controlled since some prison writings, if they came to the attention of the authorities, might result in a speedy death for the writer. This was especially true for John Frith, the subject of the first subsection of Chapter 4. Subsection two focuses on John Fisher and his half-sister and nun, Elizabeth White, illustrating how his devotional texts were meant to help her practice her religion in difficult circumstances, thus presenting a blueprint for Catholics in tribulation. The third section of the chapter concentrates on John Bradford and the management of the numerous carriers of his correspondence.

Chapter 5, “Liberating the Text?”, is perhaps the best chapter of the book. It begins ingeniously with a quotation from the nineteenth-century History of a Bible, an it-narrative (a story in which the major protagonist is an object or sometimes animal) in which books are described as (metaphorically) imprisoned behind glass when stored on their bookshelves and liberated when taken out to be read. Ahnert uses this carceral metaphor to talk about the ways in which some of the prison writings of her corpus end up being “re-incarcerated” in the process of publication. She notes how the paratexts or frames of a book tend to reinterpret it in a variety of ways. In particular, she posits 1557 as a watershed in the history of publishing, arguing that the two major publication ventures of that year in fact tended to occlude the anthologized authors’ original texts. The first of those key publications is Richard Tottel’s edition of More’s Workes, the second, Tottel’s Miscellany. Ahnert demonstrates how the prison writings of Surrey and Wyatt are decontextualized through Tottel’s editorial procedures, radically downplaying the originating contexts of these poems.

The problem with Tottel’s edition of the oeuvre of Thomas More, published in April 1557—just before Mary’s death that year—consists in Tottel’s placing of the Tower works at the end of the great folio edition, suggesting that it was only in prison that More turned from a controversialist into a writer of devotional texts. This, as Ahnert indicates, has given rise to biographical interpretations like those of Roger Ackroyd, who argues that More underwent a conversion at the end of his life. As Ahnert argues, the headings introduced to each of his prison texts in the edition “place them within the very context More had sought to escape” (161), namely defining them as biographical documents. She therefore sees Tottel’s editorial policy as an instance of “interpretative incarceration” (161), especially when the Treatise on the Passion is (incorrectly) included among the Tower works (162-3).

The rest of Chapter 5 focuses on Protestant hagiography. Section 2 discusses the treatises composed in prison by Frith, Cranmer and Ridley. Ahnert notes that John Bale’s publication of John Oldcastle’s account of his examination (1546) introduces the genre of the trial narrative to English literature. In the case of his edition of Anne Askew’s text, Bale’s commentary not only exceeds the original in length, but at the same time tends to revise or even reinterpret Askew’s original (177), and he even seems to have elided one passage (179-80).

The final section of the chapter deals with even more extensive censorship in Foxes Actes and Monuments, familiarly known as the “Book of Martyrs.” Ahnert documents how Edmund Grindal, former chaplain to Edward VI, collected manuscripts, holding some of them back from publication in order to have a comprehensive history of Protestant martyrdom. Not only this; Grindal also censored the texts he was editing in the interest of presenting a common front of Protestant doctrine, trying to eliminate signs of differences in opinion among the brethren.

Ahnert’s study emphasizes especially the importance of contextualizing prison literature primarily as carceral texts rather than treating the work under the heading of different genres. Except in the case of More (where the biographical emphasis on his imprisonment falsifies the tenor of his work), this strategy actually underlines the biographical background of these writings, since their common denominator lies in the fact of their authors’ imprisonment. Ahnert’s second and very insightful point is related to the conditions of production, publication and reception of sixteenth-century prison literature. Here she outlines a number of interesting facets of sixteenth-century publication history while also documenting how similar were the ways in which the community of incarcerated co-religionists operated in early modern times as compared to, say, Robben Island prisoners during Apartheid.

Since Ahnert’s book focuses so strongly on religious prisoners, it is somewhat surprising to find so little reflection of the generic model of the saint’s legend—after all, besides the Bible with Christ’s imprisonment and St. Paul’s letters from prison, the most important template for the story of persecution is Christian hagiography. Saints’ lives regularly include both time spent in prison and trial debates with the various pagan emperors and governors responsible for the eventual torture and execution of these martyrs. It is no coincidence that More engaged in extensive readings of saints’ lives with his family as he was trying to prepare them (and himself) for his execution. Having said that, this lacuna, like the much too cursory treatment of debtors’ prison texts, may perhaps have a source in publishers’ current preference for books of minimal length and maximal prices. In a book from such a recognized press it is sad to see that editing has not met expectations. On page 71 a quotation from Surrey is incorrectly cited as Wyatt’s work; there are also some odd uses of words such as “pre-empt” (170 and earlier) for “anticipate”; or “asocial” (131) for “reclusive” or “unsociable.” One may also want to question the use of the term “antipanopticon” for the sixteenth-century prison (22 and passim), where the adjective nonpanoptic or protopanoptic might have been more appropriate; after all, early modern carceral institutions were not intentionally trying to avoid monitoring their inmates; rather they lacked the technology of surveillance to achieve this.

Overall, Ahnert’s study, given her limitations of space, performs an admirable job of introducing us to a new conception of prison-related texts in sixteenth-century English literature.

Monika Fludernik
University of Freiburg, Germany 

[1] Philip Priestley, Jail Journeys: The English Prison Experience Since 1918: Modern Prison Writings (London: Routledge, 1989) and Prison Writing in 20th-Century America, ed. H. Bruce Franklin (New York: Penguin, 1998).


  • Comment deleted 1 year, 9 months ago

  • Allie Glimson 6 months ago

    At that time, discussions of punishment, rehabilitation and conditions of imprisonment began to attract more and more attention. Her works became the cornerstones of this new movement in literature. I even found essay writers for hire to do work on this topic, I found for this. It seems to me that the lessons learned from Ruth Ahnert's work can serve as inspiration for contemporary discussions about prison reform and improving conditions for prisoners. It's my opinion!

    Link / Reply
  • Anaheim Dumpster Rentals 4 months, 1 week ago

    Ahnert’s study of prison literature in the sixteenth century focuses on what she sees as a first quantitative peak of texts composed in legal confinement.

    Link / Reply
  • Hesperia Mobile Truck Repair 4 months ago

    Don’t risk an accident–bring your truck into Janesville On-Site Truck Repair for brake service.

    Link / Reply
  • El Dorado Hills Christmas Light Installation 4 months ago

    Our team is always ready to help, and we are dedicated to providing the best possible service to our customers.

    Link / Reply

You must log in to comment.


Cite as:

Monika Fludernik, "Ruth Ahnert, The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century," Spenser Review 45.1.6 (Spring-Summer 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
Not logged in or