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Kathleen Miller and Crawford Gribben, eds., Dublin: Renaissance City of Literature
by David J. Baker

Dublin: Renaissance City of Literature, ed. Kathleen Miller and Crawford Gribben (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017).

One of the virtues of this collection, Dublin: Renaissance City of Literature, is that it puts every word in the title into productive contingency. As the editors Kathleen Miller and Crawford Gribben explain, the volume follows upon recent work on the ‘literary cultures of early modern Ireland’ (4), especially The Oxford History of the Irish Book, volume three, as well as Ireland in the Renaissance, c. 1540-1660, and Dublin and the Pale in the Renaissance, c. 1540-1660.[1]  These last two titles, at least, seem definitive enough: they link Ireland or Dublin with ‘the’ Renaissance, and they bracket the years between 1540 and 1660 as the period during which this Renaissance took place. But did it take place in Ireland? Here, there is less clarity. One of the co-editors of the two volumes, Michael Potterton, has suggested that ‘the Renaissance’ did not in fact ‘play… a very major role in Ireland, or vice versa’, a conclusion that, as Miller and Gribben say, ‘seem[s] paradoxical’ (5).  The questions for Dublin: Renaissance City of Literature, then, become: what does it do with this paradox? Does it resolve it (or seek to resolve it), or does it perpetuate it? In the period covered by the volume, Ireland was often seen as ‘a barely civilized frontier outpost’, and Dublin a ‘dot on the barbaric edge of the known world’ (19), as one contributor reminds us. Nonetheless, can this island and this city be said to have ‘had’ a Renaissance? If so, when? And what would count as evidence for the arrival and the persistence of this ‘cultural movement’ (4)? Such questions surface first in the introduction, and they inform the essays that follow. These essays are, without exception, informed and cogent, offering a variously refracted, but never less than illuminating, perspective on this early modern city. 

To get a fix on when the Renaissance might have touched down in Ireland, the editors have chosen to push the start date of this period back to the beginning of the fifteenth century and the end date forward to the late seventeenth.  This gives them more historical latitude than the 1540-1660 span dictated by the two previous volumes on ‘Renaissance’ Ireland, and, I’d note, this time frame also squares with the more usual and more capacious definition of the era: it begins in the Italian city states of the fourteenth century and becomes, by the seventeenth, a broadly European phenomenon.  Their rationale for this expansion is taken from one of the most acute essays in the collection, Raymond Gillespie’s ‘Books, politics, and society in Renaissance Dublin’, which, together with the first, serves to frame the issues for the volume as a whole. Gillespie points out that if we were to consider only the major architectural evidence, sixteenth-century Ireland would not appear to have had much of a Renaissance. Construction on a grand scale was not feasible in most of the kingdom, though ‘detailing on more traditional buildings’ or on funeral monuments seems ‘Renaissance-inspired’. But, he argues, we should be looking elsewhere, and specifically to Dublin.

The Renaissance—or at least, a Renaissance—is a humanistic endeavour, grounded in textual scholarship, and its discourses (that of ‘commonwealth’, for instance) were increasingly prevalent in Dublin and influential on the Corporation that governed it. Thus, ‘the language of the Renaissance can be detected long before its buildings took shape’ (39). This point deserves the emphasis that the editors give it, although they could do more to elaborate.  Treating the Renaissance as a single ‘cultural movement’, it seems, does not work for Ireland, and perhaps nowhere. Signs of this movement might show up in some places and not others, in some media and not others, or, though Gillespie does not say this, might be only incipiently present wherever we might look.  It would seem to follow, then, that the project that is pursued in this collection, though not fully articulated here, is exactly the right one: coming at early modern Ireland from different angles, finding trace effects of ‘the’ Renaissance where they appear, while remaining undaunted if they do not show up everywhere, or if they do not persist anywhere.

In Gillespie’s own wide-ranging essay, a case in point, he canvasses print culture in early modern Dublin. The city lacked its own printing press until 1551, when a royal printer began issuing religious works, proclamations and the like. But a fairly active book trade meant that the learned in the city could buy, borrow and accumulate books; these mostly came from London, which exerted a powerful influence. Richard Stanihurst, who himself boasted a notable library, called Dublin ‘young London’ (44).  As Gillespie describes it, Dublin is in many ways isolated from the usual venues of the Renaissance, but the traffic of people and ideas to and from the English capital means that it has access to those venues nonetheless, with lasting implications for its politics and for the languages within which it unfolds over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In his essay, as in several in the collection, the Renaissance takes on an operational definition: it is that which arises from the complex give and take between Dublin and other mediating locales—London, Chester and Bristol, but also Italy, Germany and Chile—exchanges that ensure residents did not ‘live in a English-inspired Renaissance bubble’ (47).

It is Theresa O’Byrne, though, who makes good on the editors’ choice to expand their temporal horizons. Her essay, ‘Centre or periphery? The role of Dublin in James Yonge’s Memoriale (1412)’, starts the volume and is well placed there: perhaps most powerfully, it makes the case that Dublin was, even at the beginning of the fifteenth century, a Renaissance city in potentia and, at one and the same time, a backwater (the answer to the title’s question, then, is: both).  The author of the Memoriale, a Dubliner, was variously a legal scribe, notary and translator. In 1411, a Hungarian knight, Laurence Rathold, came to town to embark on a pilgrimage to a site known as the ‘Purgatory of St. Patrick’, and, when he returned, Yonge wrote up a narrative of his journey, featuring Dublin as a ‘cosmopolitan city’ (19). O’Byrne does a superb job of building out from this work to provide a thick description, not only of the trip, but of the tropes that inform Yonge’s account. His Dublin is a haven of civilisation, Anglicised and set over against the territories of the rebellious Gaelic Irish. By a neat symmetry, Yonge has Rathold leaving both safety and virtue behind him in Dublin. The nearer he gets to Purgatory, situated in the inhospitable northwest of the island, the nearer he approaches the ‘untamed and demonic’ (27)—the territory of the Gaels. For all Yonge’s civic pride, though, his work seems to have done little to shift attitudes; later Hungarian poems mention Rathold’s pilgrimage, but not Yonge’s ‘advertisement for Dublin’ (22). We’re not surprised when we turn to the next essay, Gillespie’s, and find that, some two centuries later, Dublin is still considered marginal, a second and derivative London, however central it may have been to its inhabitants, and, indeed, no matter how cosmopolitan it was in fact.

The other essays in this collection fall into two categories: those that take Dublin as their specific locus of investigation, and those that deal in larger textual concerns, with some attention given (briefly) to their implications for the city.  Here, to keep Dublin in view, I’m going to concentrate mostly on the essays of the first type.  These essays also tend to be the more biographical. Talking about early modern Dublin, for many of the contributors, turns out to mean talking about specific people who lived there, or had associations with the city, and then working out from them in network fashion. An especially fine example of this is Mark Empey’s contribution, ‘“A real credit to Ireland, and to Dublin”: the scholarly achievements of Sir James Ware’. Empey makes a case for Ware as a significant, though under-recognised, historian of his time.  Ware, he notes, was a student of Dublin, cataloguing its archbishops and collecting information on its mayors and bailiffs, though he never published a comprehensive history of his own. Empey finds some of that history, though, in tracing Ware’s social circle. Like Stanihurst, this historian had a large library, and he lent its holdings to ‘cross-section of people in Dublin’. Some were New English, but Ware knew several Catholic clergymen as well, and some of these were ‘influential representatives of Gaelic society’ (131). From this give and take, Empey draws two conclusions: Dublin’s scholarly community was much less divided along ethnic and confessional lines than we have supposed. And (chiming, here, with Gillespie) the book trade in Dublin was probably more vigorous than we have supposed, supported, as it was, by an ‘inclusive book-reading community’ (134).

For a lucid overview of Dublin at the turn of the seventeenth century, readers should turn to ‘Edmund Spenser’s Dublin’ by Andrew Hadfield. (In fact, to get situated, they may want to start there and then read backwards and forwards). Here again, Dublin is ‘caught between Gaelic Ireland and imperial England’ (64), but this description is given texture by the particulars of Spenser’s life there and the circles in which he moved. Hadfield achieves a nice balance between asserting, on the one hand, that Dublin had an ‘impact’ on ‘Spenser’s writing’ (55), and, on the other, conceding that it is ‘not easy to prove that particular passages in Spenser’s writings can be traced back to his experience in Dublin’ (69). His essay is a model of a certain kind of prosopography, here with an urban slant: copiously informed, detailed, with a careful sense of what can and cannot be verified. 

David Heffernan’s ‘Complaint and reform in late Elizabethan Dublin, 1579-94’ is just as circumstantial, but he has set himself another task. According to a narrative that has gained currency among historians of early modern Ireland, the period divides roughly into two: before the early 1580s, when Elizabethan officials in the kingdom were prepared to be more conciliatory toward the Old English and Gaels, and to implement change through legal means, and after the early 1580s, when they were not, when hard methods were preferred, and war was the inevitable outcome. Heffernan intends to disrupt, or perhaps better, to smooth out this story, showing that ‘conciliatory political and legal reform’ (97) was widely supported among New English officials as early as the reign of Henry VIII and then right up until the end of the sixteenth century. He casts his eye on specific figures—Nicholas White, Barnaby Rich and James Croft among them—who lodged complaints with the authorities in London about corruption in the military government of Ireland (complaints which, inevitably, triggered a counter-literature of self-exculpation). Dublin serves to connect these figures, since it was the ‘centre of a certain type of bureaucratic literature’, a literature that was, moreover, ‘intrinsically Renaissance’ (85). There is, though, a tension in Heffernan’s implicit historiography. On the one hand, he wants to set aside the all too neat story of the 1580s as pivot point. On the other, he wants to advance his own story about the Renaissance: that it arrives in Dublin as a form of governmentality, along with the ‘centralising bureaucratic state”’ (85). Both stories seem plausible, but it’s the first, with its non-linearity, its scepticism about abrupt historical change that seems more in line with the implications of the volume as a whole.      

Heffernan’s claim that bureaucratic papers too are a kind of ‘literature’ poses a certain question to the title of the volume: if Dublin is a ‘city of literature’, what counts as literature? Marie-Louise Coolahan’s ‘Renaissance Dublin and the construction of literary authorship: Richard Bellings, James Shirley and Henry Burnell’, circles back to more familiar ground, although she also expands the terrain covered by the literature ‘of’ Dublin. Coolahan notes that ‘literary folk’ (101) among the émigrés on the island often claimed to belong to a community, one centred in Dublin. She instances Lodowick Bryskett’s well known A discourse of civill life (1606), which depicts a gathering of ‘influential middlemen of the Elizabethan administration’ (99), among them Edmund Spenser. But this community was mostly a ‘fiction’ (100), she says: few of the participants lived in the area.  The literature of Dublin, then, is literature that takes the city as what Benedict Anderson would later call, on a larger scale, an ‘imagined community’. To illustrate this, Coolahan analyses the textual apparatus of works by the three figures mentioned in her title, and the reception to those works. It’s her conclusion, though, that is most striking, especially when put alongside the findings of the other essays: all of these communities were ‘short-lived, representing “re-mort” rather than “re-naissance”’. The volatility of Dublin’s politics, literary and otherwise, soon put paid to them.  Coolahan’s sense of the ‘fitfulness of any literary renaissance in Dublin’ (117) is a useful corrective to Heffernan’s sense of a definitive and ‘intrinsic’ Renaissance, even as it repeats, in a literary register, his nuanced conclusion that strict before and after stories about the history of Ireland don’t work particularly well. 

Coolahan’s piece can also be usefully read together with Stephen Austin Kelly’s ‘Anglo-Irish drama? Writing for the stage in Restoration Dublin’, which picks things up later in the seventeenth century.  Here, we might think, is the end of the tale: Restoration Dublin had a thriving theatre scene, and Kelly can say with no qualification that its offerings were ‘Renaissance in character—heavily influenced by the humanist values of continental Europe with its keen interest in the civilization of ancient Rome’ (206). His essay addresses five playwrights, including Katherine Philips and Roger Boyle. The political implications of their lives and their works receive a fine-grained and well-considered appraisal. But Kelly’s conclusions are well-considered, too. The plays performed were ‘overwhelmingly…from London playhouses’. As for the ‘small number’ that had much to do with Ireland, their authors were of ‘English birth or English heritage’ with only an ‘equivocal or non-existent’ sense of themselves as Irish. Kelly’s claim that they are ‘clearly part of the literary heritage of Ireland’ (207) seems a little forced, though not drastically so. Again, the reader who remembers that, as far back as the early fifteenth century, Yonge was bent on promoting Dublin as a ‘smaller version of London’ (19) will be impressed by how perduring, and how intractably complex, this relation was and remained. 

The remaining four essays in the volume have another sort of story to tell about Renaissance Dublin; you might say that they locate the ‘textual’ city. These are without a doubt some of the richest contributions: dense with detail and sometimes thick with quotation, they trace a weave among the works, and the languages, that would have been known to the more literate denizens of the city.  In ‘Translation and collaboration in Renaissance Dublin’, Eiléan Ni Chuilleanáin addresses several translations of the period, chief among them Bryskett’s aforementioned A discourse of civill life, modelled on Gimabattista Giraldi Cinzio’s Tre dialoghi della vita civile, and the Old Testament that William Bedell, provost of Trinity College and sometime chaplain to Henry Wotton in Venice, supervised.  Noting shrewdly that translation, just by its nature, is ‘sometimes hard to fix’ since it is ‘itself a passer of boundaries’ (141), Ni Chuilleanáin positions each translator in Dublin and in a milieu that extends, for both, as far as Italy.

Micheál Mac Craith’s ‘Omnia vincit amor: Gaelic poetry and English books’ is a sustained exercise in textual comparison, demonstrating multiple crossovers between English poetry, especially that of Sir John Harington, and Gaelic poetry, especially that of Riocard do Búrc. This essay is one of the most rewarding in the collection, a tour de force, knotty in places, but resonant with implication. Operating in three languages, Mac Craith shows that do Búrc, and two other Gaelic poets besides, sourced their Ovid through Harington. (This conclusion puts a point on, for instance, Empey’s claim that the scholarly community in Dublin at this time was ‘inclusive’.)

In ‘Latin oratory in seventeenth-century Dublin’, Jason Harris analyses a ‘small corpus’ (186) of Latin encomia, including an oration circa 1658 by Caesar Williamson, in honour of Charles Blount, then the lord deputy.  Harris works impressively close to his texts, though he stresses that most of Dublin’s inhabitants would have missed the nuances. These speeches were ‘performative’ (204); they presented Dublin as the city’s elite wished to think of it (and of themselves): civil, and steeped in the humanist learning of the Renaissance.

Alexander S. Wilkinson’s concluding essay, ‘Peripheral print cultures in Renaissance Europe’, is at once the most wide-ranging and data heavy piece in the collection and the one that has the least to do with Dublin (it’s mentioned in the last paragraph). Wilkinson places Ireland’s ‘print domain’ (230) in a global context and assigns it to a ‘third tier of publishing nations’, those with little printing in any language and therefore, it’s been assumed, little ‘intellectual vitality’ (231). He pushes back against this perception some, reminding us that most in Ireland spoke Irish, but even so, he has to concede, a market for books in this vernacular could hardly have emerged: too few would buy. When other contributors to the volume, Empey, say, make a case for Dublin as a Renaissance city despite its anaemic book trade, this is the perception they are trying to dislodge. But Wilkinson’s robustly supported overview of other publishing ‘domains’ suggests that it had a certain basis in fact.

Where, then, does Dublin: Renaissance City of Literature leave us? All over, I would say, and quite appropriately. As often in such collections, fundamental terms—Renaissance, literature, even city—are in play, and they often differ in meaning and emphasis from essay to essay. The Renaissance puts in its appearance here in various times, places, genres and media. Sometimes its arrival is definitive and lasting, sometimes tentative and temporary. The individual essays, and the weight of their diverse erudition, bend the overall framework of the collection this way, then that. But the volume keeps its organising questions open, and the answers the contributors offer are judicious and substantial.  The Renaissance in Dublin, it’s clear, was to some extent what Harris calls a ‘self-promoting fiction’ (204), sustained by the need of the city’s literati to believe it, despite their actual marginality and belatedness. But, as O’Byrne’s opening essay shows, this fiction was actively and inventively promoted in the city from the fifteenth century on, and was fed there by intellectual, cultural, and literary exchanges with most of Europe. ‘Paradoxical’? Perhaps, but this volume suggests that it was just this paradox, this rhetorical displacement of reality, that brought the Renaissance to Dublin.

David J. Baker

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


[1] The Oxford History of the Irish Book, vol. 3, ed. Raymond Gillespie and Andrew Hadfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Ireland in the Renaissance, c. 1540-1660, ed. Thomas Herron and Michael Potterton (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007); Dublin and the Pale in the Renaissance, c. 1540-1660, ed. Michael Potterton and Thomas Herron  (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2011). The first book covers the years between 1550 and 1800.


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Cite as:

David J. Baker, "Kathleen Miller and Crawford Gribben, eds., Dublin: Renaissance City of Literature," Spenser Review 49.1.14 (Winter 2019). Accessed August 26th, 2019.
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