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Margaret Christian, Spenserian Allegory and Elizabethan Biblical Exegesis
by Kathryn Walls

Christian, Margaret. Spenserian Allegory and Elizabethan Biblical Exegesis: A Context for The Faerie Queene259 pp. Manchester UP, 2016. ISBN: 978-0719083846. $110.00 cloth. 

As everyone knows, Sidney in his Apology for Poetry drew a strong distinction between the historiographer and the poet. Referring in the Letter to Raleigh to his poem as “historicall fiction” (9)[1] Spenser thus gives us pause. How can a fiction be “historicall”?  If I am not mistaken, Margaret Christian takes Spenser’s formulation as validating her own conception of the poem as an account of Elizabethan history in fictional terms. Indeed, this seems clear from her application of the term “historical allegory” on page 18 and elsewhere. But the Elizabethans did not—as far as one can tell from the OED—describe what for them were broadly contemporary events as historical.[2] In his use of the term Spenser must be referring, rather, to his consistently Arthurian setting, and thus to what he characterizes as the escapist appeal of his work. “[H]istoricall fiction,” he explains, is of the sort that the most part of men delight to read, rather for variety of matter, then for profite of the ensample” (10). At lines 11-12 he goes on to distinguish between his method and “good discipline deliuered plainly in way of precepts, or sermoned at large, as they vse” (22-3). But Spenser subverts his dichotomy between what he had come close to promoting as the “sit back” appeal of his poem and the “sit up” effect sought by preachers of sermons and such-like—even as he articulates it. First, he expects us to concur that both fictions and sermons are fundamentally didactic (existing in the service of “good discipline,” 22). Second, reiterating his opening description of his poem as “a continued Allegory, or darke conceit,” 2]), he now characterizes it as “clowdily enwrapped in Allegoricall deuises” (23). How then might it appeal to that formerly-mentioned majority of readers seeking undemanding delight? Such readers are just as likely to be put off The Faerie Queene as those who prefer sermons. In other words, Spenser conspicuously fails in his ostensible purposes of conflating lovers of stories with lovers of allegory, and driving a wedge between lovers of allegory and lovers of sermons. He may wink at the notion that this latter group even exists, although his ultimate intent seems to be to target the complacency of readers in general. While Christian does not register this passage as I do, she is commendably alert to its unhelpfulness as a key for the twenty-first century reader. Presenting her study as a bridge between Spenser’s opposed terms, she turns to sixteenth-century religious rhetoric, which she finds—pace the Letter to Raleigh—suffused with (as we would see it) historically-oriented allegorical interpretations of (for the most part) the Bible. Although, as Christian goes on to explain, such interpretation was seen as deduction by some exegetes, Christian sensibly maintains her grip by depending throughout on a pragmatic definition of “allegorizing” as what we, but not necessarily her authors, would see as the imposition of meaning.  

In support of her governing idea, which is that Elizabethan readers would have had no difficulty in interpreting Spenser’s fiction as an allegory of recent events, she begins by observing the survival, beyond the Reformation, of the tradition of allegorical interpretation of the Bible that was initiated in the Bible itself and extended by the Church Fathers and commentators throughout the Middle Ages. In order to demonstrate the existence and consistency of allegorical interpretations over time, she quotes from a selection of pre- and post-Reformation passages on the Parable of the Sower. As she herself acknowledges, however, the fact that the Parable is an allegory in the first place could have operated “as a check on interpretative ingenuity” (19). She also cites chronologically separated interpretations of Mary and Martha as the contemplative and active lives. The question arises as to whether these interpretations are allegorical, even in the usefully broad sense in which Christian applies the term. It seems to me that they articulate what the story in question always meant and always will mean. A more indisputably allegorical reading of Mary and Martha may be found in the thirteenth-century Bible Moralisée, where they are identified Ecclesia and Synagoga. This identification follows in the footsteps of Paul’s interpretation of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4.22-31, which Christian cites as a model of allegorical reading (12).[3] This Medieval dichotomy was generally adapted by the Reformers to reflect the division between Rome (identified by some Reformers with the “Synagogue of Satan” of Revelation 3.9) and the Protestant Churches.[4] Although the Protestant reading is inevitably unique to Protestantism, it still attests to the continuity that Christian wishes to expose. It is reflected by Spenser in his treatment of Una as opposed to the false Una/Duessa/Abessa/Corceca.

Christian confronts the impact of the Reformation on the tradition through Tyndale, who indulged in what we would see as allegorizing even while he was overtly hostile to what for him came under this very heading. Her account of how Tyndale justified his apparent inconsistency is also illuminating, although Christian pays scant attention to the inclination of the Reformers to read Old Testament characters as people like themselves, and thus to what might be characterized as their moral (rather than, as we would see it, historical) interpretations. Pursuing imposed readings, she cites Tyndale’s interpretation of Luke’s account of how, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ restored the ear of Malchus after Peter had cut it off (Luke 22.50-51) as figuring the impact of the gospel.[5] This interpretation is, she implies, extreme in its commitment to the Medieval tradition of allegorizing; it comes, she says, “as a bit of a surprise” (27). Indeed, although neither Christian nor Tyndale mentions this, it is identical with Augustine’s interpretation.[6] Tyndale himself offered it as an example of free interpretation—or, rather, personal interpretation governed only by faith.[7] Its patristic origins notwithstanding, it was calculated to appeal to Tyndale’s fellow Reformers, thanks to their standard equation of the gospel with Protestantism, the law in its redundancy with Rome. It seems to me, however, that what Augustine and Tyndale chose to see was not so distant from what Luke himself wanted them to see.

Christian concludes her first chapter by turning to the Geneva Commentary. Quoting its traditional treatment of the Song of Songs (31), and its identification of the Israelites on the edge of the Red Sea with “the Church of God” (32), she emphasizes what she sees as its proclivity for allegorization along historical lines.[8] But—pace Christian—the Commentary does sometimes eschew allegory in favor of moralization. Noah’s intoxication and consequent exposure of his private parts (Gen. 9.21-22), interpreted by Saint Augustine in the City of God (XVI.2) as types of Christ’s passion and nakedness on the cross, is interpreted in the Geneva Commentary as “set before our eyes to shewe what an horrible thing drunkenness is.”[9] A much fuller analysis would be required in order to assess the relative weight of the Commentary’s historical and moral dimensions. Strangely enough, Christian does not at this point discuss the Commentary on Revelation, which (in its hints as to the identity of the whore of Babylon with the Pope and so forth) is from our point of view an imposed reading—though the commentators saw themselves as deducing the meaning of a divinely-inspired prophetic work.[10]

In her second chapter Christian focuses on biblical passages used in special liturgies and prayers prescribed for times of crisis, passages that depend upon and reinforce the assumption that contemporary England is comparable with (or, as Christian often puts it, “identifiable” with) Old Testament Israel. Predisposing the English to see themselves as the antitype of God’s original chosen people, these materials would, Christian argues, have conditioned Elizabethans into reading Spenser’s fiction as they read the Old Testament. Christian’s argument is at one level unimpeachable, although she probably pushes it too far when she claims that people would have been convinced by the presence of the psalms and such-like in their liturgies that their history was “interchangeable” (18) with that of the Israelites, and that they were “contemporaries of biblical figures” (37). Christian’s interpretation of what I would see as (albeit implicit) comparisons as identifications is of course consistent with her governing argument. If Elizabethans could see the ancient Israelites not just like but as themselves, then they were (as she puts it in her concluding chapter) “eminently equipped to penetrate … the [Faerie Queene’s] allegorical veil” (223).

Extending her survey to sermons, Christian continues in her third chapter to represent the application of Old Testament examples to present instances as mystical identification. But her acknowledgment that Elizabethan preachers were prepared to compare present personages and events with characters and incidents in pagan as well as Old Testament “history” suggests that they were capable of seeing both histories as reservoirs of examples (taking what we would see as a more rational view). Were they, in other words, so different from the present-day commentators who describe contemporary populism as “fascist” and “Nazi”?  In any case, just as interesting as the habit of comparison that concerns Christian are the habitual terms of comparison. Dryden’s extreme irritation with Protestant nationalism was to emerge a century on in Absalom and Achitophel, where he turns the clichés of anti-Catholic quasi-typology against the anti-Catholic typologists. He echoes the complacent self-identification of the Protestant faction with “the chosen people” (88), but his goal is to expose their likeness to the Jews in their guise as “a headstrong, moody, murm’ring race” (45).

After these preliminary chapters, which refer to Spenser’s allegory in general terms, Christian takes various aspects of Elizabethan religious rhetoric in turn in order to contextualize specific episodes in The Faerie Queene. She begins with a rewarding chapter in which she proposes that the genealogies of Christ, being both kingly and genetic/dynastic, were the model for the chronicles read by, respectively, Arthur (largely kingly) and Guyon (dynastic) in II.x. She follows with a compelling commentary on the maritime adventures of Florimell in the light of Elizabethan elaborations of Biblical imagery of the sea. This chapter stands out as exceptional within Christian’s monograph as a whole in that what it offers is an interpretation “in moral and spiritual terms” (128). Then, after reminding us that Medieval Islam was commonly represented as a prefiguration (a quasi-type) of contemporary Catholicism, she reads the oriental Souldan of Book V as the Armada, and his defeat as the embodiment of the much-vaunted interpretation of the defeat of the Spanish as providential. Indeed, as Michael O’Connell remarked some years ago, “[t]he Souldan’s high war chariot aptly portrays the turreted Spanish galleons of the Invincible Armada.”[11] Christian acknowledges that her interpretation is not new, but sees herself as standing apart from those who would drive a wedge between the assumptions of Spenser’s readers and Spenser’s own intent, adding that “[w]henever we try to separate providential from ordinary history, or divorce historical reference from moral message, we read the poem in a fundamentally un-Elizabethan and un-Spenserian way” (152). Christian is generally crystal clear, but I struggle to understand her declaration here. It is hard to believe that by it she means to close the door on the possibility that Spenser was influenced not only by contemporary preaching but also by Medieval tradition per se. Christian would surely be interested in, for instance, Guillaume de Deguileville’s representation of the Pharoah as charioteer in his pursuit of the Israelites as a doomed client of the deadly sin of Pride, pride being such a significant factor in Spenser’s representation of the “proud Souldan” (V.viii.30.3).[12]  

Writing on Mercilla as Elizabeth, Christian stresses the extent to which preachers intent on justifying the Queen’s execution of Mary Stuart avoided mentioning Elizabeth’s prevarication and quasi-retraction, aspects of the affair that (to put the point euphemistically) would have compromised their own argument that the execution was necessary and right. Spenser, as Christian reads him, does the same. She represents the politic strategy of the preachers politely, and is inclined to set aside as anachronistic twentieth and twenty-first century interpretations of the silencing of the unpolitic Malfont as testimony to the power of the Queen (testimony designed to expose the poet’s apparent idealization of her as coerced). Christian continues to resist the possibility of a skeptical Spenser in her discussion of Book VI. Noting that Calidore is normally construed as an unsettling projection of Spenser’s political disillusionment, Christian declares that Elizabethan readers would have been untroubled by his implicit criticism of the court at VI.ix.27 (179). As she demonstrates, this follows precedents set by numerous sermons. As for the sermons, Christian asserts, interestingly (and, one would think, justifiably) that, since they were addressed to the court with apparent impunity, they cannot have been judged subversive. Indeed, Christian finds Calidore comparable with the Biblical prophets and royal counselors commended by Elizabethan preachers. She adds that, in living as a shepherd, Calidore recalls Moses, David, and Joseph, all of whom (as noted by preachers against court luxury) had led a pastoral existence. But the parallel here is inexact to say the least; unlike Moses and the others, Calidore does not rise in the end to a position of political power. This is a point that Christian acknowledges but does not pursue. As I see it, then, while Christian’s sources here are undoubtedly relevant, her conclusion is open to question. As she puts it, “[s]ermon references to courtiers and court show that Spenser’s treatment of these conventional topoi [of court criticism], far from being subversive or jaded, is very typical” (207). But “typical” and “subversive” are not mutually exclusive. Both may be applicable to the treatment of the court in Book VI.

In her penultimate chapter, Christian proposes an entirely new reading of the final two stanzas of the apparently incomplete seventh book. Here, Christian suggests, Spenser provides a nunc dimittis for the Queen herself (see Luke 2.29). While it is difficult to reconcile this suggestion with the poet’s use of the first person, and the contingent implication that the poet was present when Nature (for all that she is, at least in part, his own invention) delivered her judgement on Arlo Hill, it offers food for thought—and a possible explanation for the delayed publication of the Cantos. As Christian notes, “Cynthia” is Mutabilitie’s first target, after which she is “eclipsed” (217). Her eventual fate is never addressed, unless (as Christian suggests) it is acknowledged by VII.viii.1-2.  

Although this is not her explicit focus, Christian’s study is enormously suggestive of Spenser’s immersion in the Bible. (The time must be ripe for the publication of a much-expanded compilation of Spenser’s Biblical allusions.) Her writing is clear and unpretentious, and her logic transparent. She thereby leaves us free to apply her discoveries without necessarily accepting all her claims. These claims take us very far from Paul Ricoeur’s “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Christian believes that Spenser’s original readers would have interpreted The Faerie Queene as an unambiguous panegyric of Elizabeth, and that their reading should serve as our model. She is surely right to assume (as she does implicitly) that contemporary religious rhetoric influenced Spenser. And few would want to deny that this rhetoric would have conditioned the expectations of his original readers. These things having been said, Christian’s conviction that the Elizabethans would have read Spenser’s fiction as the allegorical embodiment of, above all, Elizabethan “history” as determined by Providence seems to have led her to underplay their exposure to moral interpretations. There is a question, too, as to whether the religious rhetoric that surfaces in Christian’s selections from The Faerie Queene surfaces to an equal extent throughout the poem. In any case, we need to remember that Spenser and many of his readers had also read the works of the pagan Ovid, the Catholic Ariosto, and the cynical Machiavelli (and of course many other authors that might be classified as “irreligious”). Furthermore, and to state the obvious, we are on shaky critical ground if we assume that sources and influences, or readers’ expectations, necessarily unlock meaning (as if to save us the bother). But they are always illuminating. Exposing as it does a prominent vein of Elizabethan thinking, Spenserian Allegory will be of interest to all Spenserians.


Kathryn Walls
Victoria University of Wellington 

[1] I quote from the Letter as it appears in Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, edited by A. C. Hamilton, Hiroshi Yamashita, and Toshiyuki Suzuki, Longman, 2001, pp. 714-18. 

[2] See the Oxford English Dictionary, “historical,” adj. and n. The term was used to distinguish “the nature of history as opposed to fiction or legend” (A. 1. a. [b]), but the OED citations imply that even in this context what is “historical” belongs to the reasonably distant past. In any case, Spenser’s application of the adjective to “fiction” prevents us from interpreting it to mean historical in the sense of factual.

[3] Christian adds that Paul’s interpretation is really typological, because Paul believed he was responding to the meaning with which Old Testament events had been endowed by God. But the identification of an old Testament “type” with its New Testament “anti-type” is “allegorizing” in the broad sense that Christian generally uses the term. Interestingly, Augustine (in City of God, XV.2) added his own layer to Paul’s allegorization, allegorizing Hagar as allegory itself. See Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, translated by Henry Bettenson, Penguin, 1972, pp. 597-8.

[4] Acts and Monuments, London, 1576See, for instance, that of John Philpot, Book II, p. 1744.

[5] Christian characterizes Luke’s account of Christ’s miracle as a “perfectly straightforward passage” (27), by which she seems to mean that it may be taken at face value. It must surely be understood by us as having an agenda not so different from that implicit in Tyndale’s self-conscious allegorization—even if this is something Tyndale could not see.

[6] Tractates on the Gospel of Saint John, 112, section 5. Although Augustine’s commentary centers on John, he turns here to Luke, whose gospel is unique in its account of Christ’s miracle. I consulted the online text translated by John Gibb, from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 7, edited by Philip Schaff, Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888, revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

[7] It so happens that Christian does not point this out, although she scarcely needs to, since she gives a good account of Tyndale’s thinking and repeatedly cites (on pages 26-7) “The Four Senses of Scripture,” which is the text at stake.

[8] Scholars have conceded that the Song might have been conceived as an allegory from the start. In any case, and as Christian acknowledges, the Geneva commentators probably thought that in following Bernard and others they were remaining true to their material and not “allegorizing.”

[9] Christian records Tyndale’s “rhetorical” elaboration of Noah’s private parts as the gospel on page 28. Whatever the exposure story meant, it cannot have referred to Christ; nor does it seem to invite the banal interpretation we find in the Geneva Commentary.

[10] For an example of the anti-Catholic stance of the Commentary on Revelation cf. its treatment of the “scarlet coloured beast” ridden by the Whore of Babylon, described in Revelation 17.4: “surely it is not without cause that the Ramish clergie were so delighted with this colour.” (I quote from the 1587 version.) 

[11] In The Spenser Encyclopedia, edited by A. C. Hamilton, Toronto UP, 1990, p. 282.

[12] The Pilgrimage of the Lyfe of the Manhode, edited by Avril Henry, I, EETS 288, Oxford UP, 1985, lines 4250-57. 


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Cite as:

Kathryn Walls, "Margaret Christian, Spenserian Allegory and Elizabethan Biblical Exegesis," Spenser Review 47.2.25 (Spring-Summer 2017). Accessed January 16th, 2019.
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