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Anna-Maria Hartmann, English Mythography in its European Context: 1500–1650
by Daniel Moss

Hartmann, Anna-Maria. English Mythography in its European Context: 1500–1650. Oxford UP, 201. 283 pp. ISBN: 978-0198807704. £71.78 cloth.


Early modern English mythographies have never held much appeal for scholars of mythography or early modern England. At first glance, or even upon dogged perusal, the handful of examples seem for the most part dry, difficult, derivative, impractical, and late. But Anna-Maria Hartmann’s new study, which treats the six texts comprising ‘the only original efforts in the genre of mythography written in England during the period 1500–1650’ (1), makes a strong case that we should look again. From these unprepossessing works, Hartmann reconstructs a fully functional, even dynamic tradition of early modern English mythography defined by focused argumentation, as opposed to the comprehensive reference works emanating from Italy and northern Europe. As her title indicates, Hartmann sets these neglected English mythographies in their European context, but over the course of the book they come to matter more in their English context, offering new access points to such big-picture events as the English Reformation, the New Science and the Civil War. At the same time, much of the value of the book lies in Hartmann’s masterful surveys of existing scholarship on Renaissance mythology in general and on continental mythography in particular. While the one section on Spenser has limitations, as I detail below, this is a book many scholars of English mythological poetry will want to own and frequently consult.

In a brief but efficient introduction, Hartmann takes issue with the venerable scholarly tradition of ‘laugh[ing the English mythographies] into oblivion’ (8), surveys the field and its limitations under four headings (iconography, literary studies, allegory and modern theories of myth), and establishes her central contrast between continental mythographers like Lilio Giraldi, Vincenzo Cartari and Natale Conti, ‘who sought to inform those in search of classical knowledge, impress other scholars, or win patronage’ on the one hand, and ‘the English authors [who] transformed the genre into a highly effective rhetorical instrument designed to intervene in topical debates outside the world of classical learning’ on the other (9). Despite its brevity, the introduction sets out Hartmann’s scholarly goals, which include rehabilitating a group of authors who ‘with the exception of Francis Bacon, … did not forge links that became part of a great chain of meaning’ (9), correcting for ‘the general tendency of literary scholarship to focus on Ovid’ through serious engagement with ‘other, less well-known aspects of the reception of myth’ (11), and opening new avenues for an informed literary criticism that ‘goes beyond the identification of a source for mythological detail’ (15).

The book’s first full chapter provides a magisterial overview of Renaissance mythography from early sixteenth-century editions of Fulgentius and Boccaccio through the familiar mid-century touchstones of Giraldi, Cartari and Conti. Differentiating clearly between their respective approaches—nomenclature for Giraldi, iconography for Cartari and moral allegory for Conti—Hartmann counteracts the scholarly tendency, dating from Jean Seznec’s pioneering Survival of the Pagan Gods (1940), to lump the big three together into a supertextual entity constantly plagiarised by later mythographers and poets. Her main interest in the chapter, however, is to develop a fuller genealogy of early modern mythography, arguing for humanist miscellanies like the Lectiones antiquae of Rhodiginus (1542) as the missing link between the resurgence of interest in late classical and medieval mythography and the heyday of the great Italian mythographers. Hartmann’s comprehensive treatment of this major phase of European mythography serves as a thorough introduction to the field, not least because it casts welcome light on Georg Pictorius, Julien Haurech and other figures usually relegated to footnotes.

Hartmann’s chapter on Stephen Batman’s Golden Book of the Leaden Gods (1577) will be of most interest to Spenserians, as the earliest English mythographer earns an entry in The Spenser Encyclopedia and has received attention from John N. King, Anne Lake Prescott and others. This chapter is in fact the study’s pivot, as Hartmann turns from the continental tradition of the mythography as a ‘loosely interconnected reference manual’ to what she sees as the hallmark of the English mythographic tradition, the ‘tightly integrated argumentative text’ (76). Offering Batman’s Golden Book as her first piece of evidence would seem an unpromising strategy, as ‘the handful of critics who have glanced at this mythography have dismissed it as mad and hardly worth a second look’ (55), but with painstaking contextualisation, fine argumentation and a bit of faith that the author of a confusing book was not himself confused, Hartmann makes a strong case that ‘the oddities of this text are the result of a new take on the function of its genre’ (56). Batman’s object, it appears, was the castigation of the Family of Love—‘an Horrible Sect of Gross and Wicked Heretics’, as they are termed in the title of a 1578 polemic by John Rogers, to which Batman contributed the preface (68)—so he ‘picked up Georg Pictorius’s … pleasantly learned mythography and shaped it into a rhetorical tool against a particularly pernicious threat to Protestant souls’ (56). The mythography’s climactic schema progresses through three phases of idolatry: from ancient myth, partly redeemed by a ‘positive moral and social function’ (56), Batman proceeds to Catholic hagiography, the hypocrisy of which has at least been exposed time and again and finally to a litany of heretics culminating in the Anabaptists and Familists, who appeared so dangerous because they are ‘able to live undetected amongst the English Protestants’ (70).

For Spenserians, this description of radical Nonconformists as the piously clad idolaters among us may well have its most exciting implications for the figure of Archimago, whose tendency to ‘strow an Aue-Mary after and before’ ordinarily identifies him with Protestant iconography of hypocritical Catholic friars (I.i.35.9).[1] Archimago’s unflashy veneer upon our first encounter with him, however—‘Sober he seemde, and very sagely sad’ (29.5)—merges disquietingly with Batman’s paranoid sense of the Familist menace. In relegating Archimago to his more obvious and traditional identity as papistic bogeyman, then, Hartmann probably misses a critical opportunity to expose Archimago’s bifurcated hypocrisy, opting instead to ‘reap … the literary rewards of reading Batman’ (56) by arguing that the series of biform succubae encountered by Guyon and the Palmer on the way to and within the Bower of Bliss constitutes ‘a structurally analogous mythological programme’ to that developed by Batman in the Golden Book (79).

Hartmann’s engagement with Spenser begins unpromisingly with plot summary, but grows more compelling as we proceed towards Acrasia. Especially fine on the alternately revealing and concealing aspects of the canto’s water imagery, Hartmann enlivens her reading of Spenser with fruitful critical sorties and memorable phrasing, as when she calls Guyon and the Palmer, ‘creeping on their bellies through the coverts and the bushes—good serpents in an evil paradise’ (88). But while the serial close readings of the stanzas depicting Scylla, the sirens, the temptresses in the Bower’s fountain and Acrasia herself are compelling in themselves, and succeed in illustrating their growing threat to Guyon as proportional to their degree of disguise, Hartmann does little to demonstrate that Stephen Batman has anything much to do with the artistry of Spenser’s monumental canto. Indeed, Batman disappears almost entirely from the discussion, only to return in the chapter’s penultimate paragraph with the over-insistence that ‘By now, it should be apparent that the use of mythology in Canto xii is directly analogous to the use of mythology in Batman’s Golden Booke’ (91). To the contrary, it is not even apparent whether or not Hartmann is arguing for Batman’s direct influence on Spenser; instead, the mythography ‘provides us with a historical model for a way of using myth argumentatively that we can apply to mythological poetry’ (91). If Spenser did apply that model, it seems to have made a far slighter imprint on the canto than, say, the accretion of Greek, Roman and Italian epic or the collision of Aristotelian sophrosyne with puritanical self-restraint. That the Spenser section appears relatively under-researched—all but one of the citations are over ten years old—makes this unfortunately one of the weaker portions of a strong book.

Abraham Fraunce, whose Amintas Dale Hartmann treats in her third chapter, emerges as something of a hero among the English mythographers for venturing on mythopoesis. ‘Here, mythography is poetically productive’ (127), we are told, as ‘Fraunce moves away from translation and towards a creative effort of imitation’ (119). Such boldness is thanks to Ovid, for Fraunce, like his master Sidney but unlike his fellow mythographers, proves capable of enjoying and profiting from the Metamorphoses. His poetic faculties, alas, are as far from Sidney’s—and the choice to write in hexameters aggravates the disparity—as his mythopoetic faculties are from Ovid’s, and Hartmann must be the first scholar to close-read Fraunce’s ludicrous tale of Daphne, featuring the adventures of Thistle, Hemlock and Parsnip. Even so, Fraunce proves the most congenial figure of Hartmann’s study, as he works through metamorphosis as ‘a formal principle of thought’ to produce a grand commemoration of Sidney which, despite the clunkiness of the verse, compares favourably to Spenser’s scattershot elegies in The Ruines of Time and the too-little-too-late Astrophel.[2] Hartmann locates Spenser’s real memorial to Sidney in the Garden of Adonis, where the Amaranthus flower and ‘Amintas wretched fate’ (–9) suggest serious intertextual engagement between Spenser and Fraunce. Although Hartmann leaves open the question of who influences whom here, Spenserians will want to consider the relationship afresh after reading this excellent chapter.

Because it treats a central figure in the history of ideas, Hartmann’s chapter on Francis Bacon’s De sapientia veterum liber (1609) differs fundamentally from the other chapters’ recovery projects. While Hartmann faults a main line in Bacon scholarship for dismissing the philosopher’s uncharacteristic foray into mythography as ‘pragmatism (Paolo Rossi), opportunism (Lisa Jardine) or outright insincerity (Perez Zagorin)’, the way to a fairer assessment has already been identified by Rhodri Lewis, whose argument that Bacon’s short mythography should be read in light of his larger project of the Great Instauration Hartmann cites with approval (137). For Hartmann, the ‘neglected’ link between Bacon’s mythography and his philosophy is the concept of prima philosophia, but because this primordial wisdom survives (outside of scripture) only in ancient myths or fables, and even there in scattered and corrupted form, the Baconian natural philosopher must exercise a patient allegoresis to extract and reconstitute pure axiomatic knowledge. This allegoresis, it turns out, has much more to do with ready-made interpretations Bacon found in Conti’s Mythologiae than in anything he unearthed from classical texts, and Hartmann cannot quite save this intellectual giant from proving disappointingly derivative as a mythographer. Even so, she differentiates usefully between Bacon’s insistence on a single allegorical application for each fable and the more familiar Italian hermeneutic of gathering together all available interpretations of a myth, no matter how discordant. This chapter’s inventive final section takes cognizance of the immediate popularity of De sapientia veterum among European humanists, which for Hartmann ‘presents an opportunity to reverse the direction of influence for a moment and observe how an English Renaissance mythography was received on the continent’ (156).

In her penultimate chapter, Hartmann fights a grueling uphill battle to make sense of a famously incoherent text: Henry Reynolds’ Mythomystes (1632). This barely-readable little book’s tortuous syntax ‘unfolds like a babushka doll, while verbs go missing and parentheses close that never opened’ (164). Such pervasive microcosmic flaws are matched by the manifest contradictions in Reynolds’ larger claims for the superiority of ancient wisdom over the degenerate moderns (except when he scorns pagan knowledge), culminating in a verse rendition of the Narcissus myth with obscurantist commentary, which scholars have never known or cared what to do with. Dauntless, Hartmann marshals her tremendous learning to lift this author out of the morass of his own crankery. To make sense of Reynolds’ inconsistency regarding the extent of ancient wisdom, she calls upon Ralph Häfner’s study of an early seventeenth-century crisis in Christian humanism, to find in Mythomystes ‘a dynamic response to the tensions between Neo-Platonic claims for the divinity of ancient poetry and a Protestant poetics that rejected syncretism and sought to set the truth of Christianity apart’ (165). Reynolds himself, however, remains a formidable opponent to Hartmann’s efforts on his behalf. His mythographic examples ‘are badly worn’ (179), his deployment of Ficino and Pico confused and disingenuous, his haughty sense of the ancients’ mysterious meanings (to ‘be kept inuiolate from the prophane Multitude’) a self-imposed handicap relative to Fraunce’s or Bacon’s more flexible brands of allegoresis (177). As she struggles against Reynolds’ invariable sloppiness, Hartmann’s own scholarly judgment begins to falter: for instance, she describes as ‘quite complex’ Reynolds’ commonplace notion that ‘the ancient pagans only had (fallen) reason to work with and, while they have achieved as much as is humanly possible by finding out everything about nature, their texts do not possess the divine dimension of the books of Moses’ (180). By the end of this long chapter, one salutes Hartmann’s dogged but quixotic defense of an author whose principal claim to our attention remains Michael Drayton’s friendship (164).

Hartmann regains her scholarly poise and engaging style in the fine closing chapter on the Laudian royalist Alexander Ross, whose ‘contribution to the literary and political culture of Civil War England has been well-nigh forgotten’ (207). Hartmann is here at her most resourceful and ambitious, as she ranges through the discourses of this fraught period, preparing the way for discussions of Ross’s two mythographies—Mel Heliconium (1642) and Pansebeia (1653)—with a bracingly narrated account of a pair of 1642 sermons to his hostile Southampton congregation, rife with puritans. Hartmann’s generous treatments of the mythographies themselves reveal Ross’s method to be original and well worth scrutiny, even if the message unsurprisingly reduces the wisdom of the ancients to prone veneration of King Charles and Laud. Of particular interest is Ross’s radical Virgilianism (‘irreverent’ Ovid is never mentioned) as a vehicle for the study of pagan mythology ‘not for hermeneutic but for devotional ends… . In Ross’s case, allegory is akin to meditation’ (219).

That the Ross chapter, like most of English Mythography in its European Context, proves enjoyable and compelling is testimony to Hartmann’s careful argumentation and real stylistic gift. After all, she has chosen to treat mostly forgotten and plainly derivative authors with little poetic endowment. Oxford University Press, meanwhile, has done her readers no favours with the single-spaced, 10-pt. text, and either the press or the author has made a bad mistake in omitting images entirely from a study of Renaissance mythography. Despite these obstacles, Hartmann succeeds in breathing life into faded figures like Fraunce and Ross, while setting English mythography squarely in the larger European tradition. While not an essential text for Spenserians, Hartmann’s authoritative account of the English mythographers will be of lasting value to the field as a whole.



                                                                                                Daniel Moss

                                                                                                Southern Methodist University

[1] For a straightforward reading of Archimago as ‘a conventional anticlerical figure’, see John N. King, Spenser’s Poetry and the Reformation Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 13.

[2] On the delayed publication of Astrophel, see Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser: A Life (Oxford UP: 2012), 313.


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Daniel Moss, "Anna-Maria Hartmann, English Mythography in its European Context: 1500–1650," Spenser Review 49.2.11 (Spring-Summer 2019). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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