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Victoria Brownlee, Biblical Readings and Literary Writings in Early Modern England, 1558-1625
by Margaret Christian

Brownlee, Victoria. Biblical Readings and Literary Writings in Early Modern England, 1558-1625. Oxford UP, 2018.

In Biblical Readings and Literary Writings in Early Modern England, 1558-1625, Victoria Brownlee, Lecturer in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway, ‘re-examin[es] the relationship between literature and biblical interpretation’ with special attention to typology (13). The first chapter shows the centrality of the Bible to literary culture, while the following chapters showing how biblical persons (Solomon, Job, and Mary, Jesus’s mother), and books (Song of Solomon and Revelation) appear both in religious discourse and literature. Aside from King Lear and Book One of The Faerie Queene, the literary works Brownlee discusses are familiar only to scholars, and this reviewer appreciated Brownlee’s tactful guidance through these less-read poems and plays as well as her familiarity with the religious discourse of the period.

Brownlee’s first chapter focuses on how ordinary Protestants found personal meaning in the scriptures, quoting current scholarship, early modern admonitions from Thomas Cranmer, William Tyndale, and John Downham (among others). She retails anecdotes about ordinary believers like James Ussher’s blind aunts (14), Katherine Stubbes (22), Margaret Hoby (24), and William Gouge (25) to demonstrate that such people read the Bible regularly and receptively, expecting to be fashioned and transformed through that reading.

The promise of the Bible in English was that it would be clear to lay readers who, through their encounter with it, would gain eternal salvation. But such readers also read prologues, marginal notes, and chapter headings, not to mention supplements such as study guides, commentaries, and sermons. These texts provide ample evidence that the English Protestant interpretative community, while paying lip service to Tyndale’s formulation that ‘scripture hath but one sence which is ye literall sence’ (quoted 39), in practice ‘accommodated figurative readings’ of scripture (41).

This first chapter includes a thorough explanation of the typological approach experts recommended ordinary believers to take in their reading. Typology, one recalls, is a literary device used in the New Testament to present the person of Jesus and events in his life (the ‘antitypes’ or realities) as ‘fulfilling’ historical persons and events (‘figures,’ ‘types,’ or ‘shadows’) described in the Hebrew scriptures (as when Matthew 12 and 16 refer to Jonah’s time in the fish as ‘the sign of Jonah,’ to be fulfilled in the Jesus’s entombment and subsequent resurrection).

Beyond recognizing such biblically authorized correspondences, the early moderns extended this technique to identify all manner of parallels between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, not to mention the 16th- and 17th-century present. Typology, Brownlee correctly notes, ‘enabled current [English] circumstances to be filtered through the promises and outcomes of the biblical past,’ and ‘allowed the present to be read in light of … [t]he Second Coming of Christ’ (32).

Brownlee proves her point about early modern English embrace of typology to ‘read’ persons and events of national importance in her impressive second chapter showcasing Elizabeth’s and James’s appearances as Solomon in contemporary culture. Court, Accession Day, and funeral sermons; woodcuts; coronation pageantry; and stained-glass windows all come in for analysis. The play Sapientia Solomonis, performed at Westminster school before Queen Elizabeth and Princess Cecilia of Sweden, ‘reinforces Elizabeth’s position as an antitype of Solomon by casting the diplomatic visit of Princess Cecilia with that of the Queen of Sheba’ (70). Brownlee notes that, like sermons comparing Elizabeth or James to Solomon, the play registers neither the biblical Solomon’s late-life slide into apostasy nor the heroic scale of his polygamy. For her, ‘the unspoken biblical ending … nags at the [play’s] closing attempt to glorify the watching Elizabeth’ (70), just as John Williams’ ‘extended adulation of Stuart Solomons … [in his funeral sermon for James, Great Britains Salomon] demonstrates the difficulty of occluding fully the biblical account of Solomon’s reign’ (73). (This reviewer does not find this omission noteworthy; the New Testament’s ten references to Solomon likewise elide his eventual apostasy.)

Brownlee reads George Peele’s play The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe (1593/4) in the context of the suppressed succession debate during the final decades of Elizabeth’s reign. She sees Peele’s play as ‘allowing a more equivocal reading of Solomon’s narrative to surface’ (78), since David (unlike Elizabeth) designates an heir and since Solomon’s late-life idolatry, though falling outside the play’s chronology, is foreshadowed by his Faustian ‘obsession with obtaining divine knowledge and power’ (76). For Brownlee, ‘negative, as well as positive, associations’ that the Bible ascribes to a figure ‘must be confronted if Solomon is to be read typologically within the early modern present’ (78, emphasis supplied). Another viewpoint might be that biblical characters’ negative and positive associations were available for deployment at the typologist’s discretion.

Chapter three, ‘A Tale of Two Jobs,’ examines King Leir and King Lear for the themes of ‘Suffering, Providence, and Restoration.’ Brownlee’s competent account of early modern expositions of Job samples works by several English divines and Continental reformers including Martin Luther and Theodore Beza, highlighting a sermon series by John Calvin (translated and often reprinted in England). Though Calvin in particular reprehended Job’s intemperate outbursts in the debates that form the central section of the biblical book, all interpretations follow the New Testament author of the book of James in emphasizing that Job’s suffering and loyalty meet with divine reward. Indeed, Job was seen as a type of Christ in his undeserved sufferings. A providentialist consensus further stipulated that God similarly allowed and oversaw the sufferings of early modern believers, just as he did Job’s, and that early modern believers’ sufferings and loyalty would be rewarded similarly—if not in this life, then certainly in the next. Brownlee perhaps overstates her claims for typology here, as a formula which a believer might invoke to achieve the result desired: ‘By identifying with Job, the suffering individual could, according to the principles of biblical typology, hope for similar restitution’ [90].

Brownlee’s original and thoroughly convincing contribution in this chapter is that in its structure, theme, and even phrases, King Leir alludes to and agrees with this interpretation. Leir is ‘‘the mirror of mild patience’’ (qtd. 96), while in Golding’s translation of Calvin, ‘‘Job were a mirror of patience’’ (qtd. 89). Leir emulates the biblical Job’s resignation (‘It is God’s will, and therefore must be so’), and he believes himself about to die, almost echoes Jesus’ final prayer: ‘Now, Lord, receive me, for I come to thee’ (qtd. 100).

Shakespeare’s tragedy, according to Brownlee, develops different themes in the biblical book, specifically Job’s many challenges to God’s justice throughout the debates. Though she occasionally misreads individual lines she quotes,[1] Brownlee convincingly demonstrates that the play’s structure, along with verbal allusions to biblical passages in Job and elsewhere raise expectations of Cordelia’s resurrection. Brownlee sees the thwarting of these expectations as ‘spectacularly reveal[ing] typology to be a perpetuating process of disappointment, and suggest[ing] that its providential assurance of future restoration is illusory’ (111).—One wonders, though, whether the effect of ‘dead’ actors rising from the final tableau to perform the once-traditional onstage dance might counter such a suggestion somewhat.

Brownlee’s fourth chapter examines early modern English readings of the Song of Songs. This offers her the opportunity to explore in depth various problems with the typological outlook—problems she identifies as early as the first chapter. First, the Protestant claim to rely on the literal sense gives place to rather tortured apologies for non-literal reading when the portion of the Bible under interpretation was regarded as symbolic. Further, orthodox Protestant theology dictated that fallen human perception is a less reliable guide to truth than God’s revelation, but interpreting passages of scripture like the Song of Songs depended on precisely those unreliable perceptions—and truth, once discerned, must (again problematically) be expressed in fallen human language.

Finally, a typological reading of the Song would require that it commemorate an actual event (the carnal raptures of the historical Solomon and one of his historical wives, perhaps the black but presumably comely Egyptian princess who led him into idolatry), and that this literal, historical event ‘shadowed’ or ‘typified’ or ‘was fulfilled by’ God’s (or Christ’s) love for the individual believer (or the church). Rather than grapple with such sensuality and the disturbing moral example so set, most expositors presented the text as allegorical: a fictional love story Solomon fabricated to represent the sacred romance. But Brownlee demonstrates how the distinction between allegorical fiction and typological history breaks down into contradictory claims in sermons, annotations, and commentaries, leaving interpretations of the Songs destabilized by the human fallibility of their originators.

This chapter climaxes in the analysis of three poetic works which straddle the line between religious discourse and imaginative literature: William Baldwin’s The Canticles or Balades of Salomon (1549), Francis Quarles’ Sions Sonets (1625), and an allegorical epic, Robert Aylett’s The Song of Songs, which was Salomons metaphrased in English heroiks (1621). Brownlee cites ample evidence of poets’ and commentators’ shared discomfort with the eroticism of the biblical language and their self-sabotaging disparagement of the power of language.

In the fifth chapter, ‘Typologies of Marian Maternity: Literal and Spiritual Birth in Seventeenth-Century Women’s Writing,’ the women whose writing is most important are Dorothy Leigh and Aemilia Lanyer. Brownlee uses The Mothers Blessing (1616) and Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) to contest the notion that, when Protestants demoted the Virgin Mary from intercessor to role model, the status of women declined. Brownlee sees Leigh and Lanyer, and indeed Thomas Bentley, author of Monument of Matrons (1582), offering their readers an opportunity to identify with Mary typologically and thus attain new spiritual heights.

Here again Brownlee may overstate her claims, occasionally misreading her source or a biblical allusion. For instance, on page 159, Brownlee reads Lanyer as claiming that Mary’s childbirth is ‘an act that alters the significance of childbearing for all women. It is deemed that which ‘freed us from the curse’ (98: 1087-8).’ The context is Lanyer’s address to Mary on the occasion of the Annunciation:

Could thy faire eyes from teares of joy refraine,
When God look’d downe vpon thy poore degree?
Making thee Seruant, Mother, Wife, and Nurse
To Heauens bright King, that freed vs from the curse.

Surely it is ‘Heauens bright King’ ‘that freed vs from the curse,’ not than Mary’s act of childbirth. (The line is a paraphrase of Galatians 3:13, ‘Christ hath redeemed vs from the curse of the Lawe.’)[2] Lanyer, rather than breaking theological ground, uses a variant of a stock biblical phrase that provides a rhyme for ‘nurse.’

Similarly, Brownlee quotes from one of Thomas Bentley’s meditations in which ‘the speaker contemplates Mary’s bond with Christ[,] resolving that ‘as thou art his corporall mother, so art thou through faith his spirituall mother: and I following thy faith with all humbleness, am his spirituall mother also’.’ To Brownlee, this language ‘evidences the existence of a thought process that understands Mary’s material motherhood to shade into a powerful model of spiritual parentage’ (163).

This is exciting but doubtful. More likely, Bentley’s speaker claims the spiritual kinship explicitly contrasted with the material in Mark 3:32-34 and Matthew 12:46-50 (quoted here from the 1587 Geneva Bible):

While he yet spake to ye multitude, beholde, his mother, and his brethren stood without, desiring to speake with him. Then one said vnto him, Beholde, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speake with thee. But he answered, and said to him that told him, Who is my mother? & who are my brethren? And he stretched foorth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Beholde my mother and my brethren. For whosoeuer shall doe my Fathers will which is in heauen, the same is my brother and sister and mother. (Matthew 12:46-50, Geneva)

Brownlee misses Bentley’s unremarkable and very Protestant point: doing God’s will (exercising faith) is the basis of kinship to Jesus. Rather than ‘identification with Mary allow[ing] the speaker to claim her position as a spiritual mother,’ the allusion denies even Mary any spiritual kinship other than ‘through faith’—the basis on which any believer can also be Jesus’s family member. Typology does nothing for the reader here; we are left with Mary’s moral example.

Spenserians will be especially interested in Brownlee’s last chapter, ‘Reading Revelations: Figuring the End in Post-Reformation Literary Culture.’ As in the case of Song of Songs, the myriad early modern English publications purporting to interpret Revelation’s symbols ironically underscores how obscure the vaunted Protestant ‘literal sense’ could be.[3] But earlier centuries could hardly be blamed for failing to understand that this book is about the vindication of persecuted Protestants: the Pope is its target, and the Whore of Revelation 12 is recognized as the Roman Catholic Church.

Besides Spenser’s Book One, Brownlee discusses Thomas Dekker’s The Whore of Babylon (1607), and Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess (1624). These works create allegories to argue (or reveal) that contemporary events such as the defeat of the Armada (in The Whore of Babylon) and the Prince Charles’ abortive journey to Spain to marry the Infanta (A Game at Chess) fulfill prophecies in Revelation.

Though the chapter title word ‘Revelations’ refers to the last book of the Bible, it also keeps its lower-case meaning of something becoming visually apparent: the revelation of Duessa’s ugliness when she is stripped, for instance. Brownlee parallels the two beasts of Revelation 13, the first rising from the sea and deceiving through language and the second beast rising from the land and deceiving through appearance, with the monster Error and the image-maker Archimago.

Brownlee notes how Revelation’s climactic event, the Second Coming of Christ, is central to any ultimate meaning in the typological hermeneutic. As long as this ending is deferred, reality itself is an unstable category: ‘The typological end-point of history that will bring meaning and clarity to everything that has gone before is, problematically, absent’ (109). This formulation is strikingly apt in relation to Book One’s deferral of closure. Given that coming home from Spain without imperial Catholic in-laws is hardly apocalyptic, Brownlee’s insight is equally satisfying in relation to the anticlimactic climaxes of Dekker’s and Middleton’s dramas.

This book is welcome: it is a well-grounded, thoroughly researched look at literary works through the lens of biblical typology. While it may use the word ‘typology’ rather loosely, strain a few interpretations, and miss a few biblical echoes, we owe Brownlee a debt of gratitude for deepening our acquaintance with several less-familiar literary works and convincing us anew of the centrality of biblical modes of interpretation to the authors of this period.


                  Margaret Christian

Penn State Lehigh Valley


[1] For instance, Albany’s exclamation that ‘it will come’ in 4.2. refers, not to the arrival of heaven’s visible spirits to tame vile offenses, but to a yet more complete breakdown of civil order: humanity preying on itself. Moreover, Kent’s question in 5.3, ‘Is this the promised end?’ cannot mean ‘What? No resurrection?’ or Edgar’s appositive would not be ‘that horror’.

[2] A January 2019 EEBO full-text search for ‘freed vs from the curse’ produced 18 hits in 16 records, including Lanyer’s, between 1558-1625. The phrase using the original ‘redeemed’ (rather than ‘freed’) produced 138 hits in 105 records for the same span of years.

[3] This reviewer was confused by Brownlee’s ongoing references to, e.g., ‘a typological approach to Revelation popular with Protestant commentators’ (184; cf. 178). If the Pope is the type, what biblical-era historical personage did early modern exegetes see as his antitype? It appears that ‘the typological connectedness of sacred prophecy and Protestant history’ [191] means ‘fulfilment,’ that extension of the New Testament literary device which treats a passage of the Hebrew Bible as a simple verbal prediction of something connected to Jesus or his followers, which is then becomes historical fact (is ‘fulfilled’) in the New Testament account—or in the case of Revelation’s verbal predictions, in the early modern era.


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Cite as:

Margaret Christian, "Victoria Brownlee, Biblical Readings and Literary Writings in Early Modern England, 1558-1625," Spenser Review 49.1.8 (Winter 2019). Accessed August 26th, 2019.
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