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Beyond the Pale
by Dennis Austin Britton and Kimberly Anne Coles

What happens when we think about race in the works of Edmund Spenser? In spite of the growing body of scholarship now devoted to early modern racial formation, few scholars have explored Edmund Spenser’s treatment of race outside of his treatment of the Irish.[1] Of course, Spenser is important to the study of race precisely because he is implicated in the English colonial project in Ireland. Scholarship on The View of the Present State of Ireland has played an important role in inaugurating Spenser as an early modern producer of race thinking; examining Spenser’s Irish project sheds light on the ways in which race in the early modern period was invested in asserting absolute difference between Protestants and Catholics, maintaining the noble quality of English blood and justifying colonial domination. Yet, race has still not been a central focus in studies of his pastoral poems, his lyric poetry and his Faerie Queene.

With this in mind, and inspired by the wonderful Twitter discussion of The Faerie Queene led by Brooke Conti and Jim Marino during the summer of 2015 (#TeamFQ), we set a challenge: to read each book of The Faerie Queene with attention to race during the summer of 2018 (#TeamFQandRace). This challenge was met with some reserve on the Sidney-Spenser listserv: not everyone who might want to contribute to the conversation was on Twitter, and Twitter’s character limit would not allow for a depth of conversation that some might want. We decided to hold the conversation on two different platforms. This discussion with two different audiences—and expectations for engagement—turned out to be informative. The Twitter conversation was mostly populated with people who would not likely consider themselves ‘Spenserians’, and who enthusiastically engaged our questions. The listserv is, of course, full of Spenserians, and some of the first postings seemed to question the validity of our entire enterprise. Dennis’s opening suggestion that Una’s whiteness might be a possible point of discussion was met with immediate rebuttal.

Lexical evidence suggests a limited use of the term ‘white’ in the period for human description, and this was offered as evidence for why Spenser or any other early modern English author would not have used ‘white’ as a racial signifier. Why not read ‘white’ though the lens of Christian typology? What evidence do we have that Spenser or any other late sixteenth-century European understood themselves as white? Alongside resistance to discussing Una’s whiteness as racially charged came the question whether or not we should talk about race in Spenser’s works at all. Spenser’s understanding of human difference can surely be traced back to Herodotus. Early respondents did not deny the fact that there were forms of racism in the early modern period, but they questioned whether Spenser was unique in his formulation of racial difference. How did his racialization diverge from ancient discussions of ethnic difference? These exchanges are worth relating for two reasons: the almost immediate resistance to the exploration of race in The Faerie Queene; and the fact that the posts cite many of the reasons why.

Such posts could have been written by any number of Spenserians, but they also unwittingly make the case for why more attention to Spenser and race is required. This is not to impugn the accurate assessment that it is unlikely that white Europeans in Spenser’s day thought of themselves as ‘white’. (This development was probably a consequence of rationalizing chattel slavery, and so a later seventeenth-century occurrence). Yet, the authors of these posts seemed unaware that scholars within critical race studies have exfoliated the use of the term ‘white’ in the early modern period. Although early modern Europeans may not yet have collectively understood themselves as ‘white’, skin classified as white or fair was almost universally esteemed over black, brown and tawny skin. Additionally, medieval and early modern physiognomies certainly invested skin colors with meaning. The point is that Spenserians can usefully engage critical race studies, and scholars of critical race studies can usefully engage Spenser: the paucity of attention to race by Spenserians, as well as the lack of attention to Spenser by scholars devoted to early modern critical race studies, is exactly why we have only a limited sense whether or not Spenser’s poetry offers anything unique to our understanding of the history of racial formation.

The suggestion that ancient thinkers like Herodotus are the chief architects of Spenser’s rationale for otherness reveals another set of assumptions. As Richard McCabe has observed, Spenser does indeed employ the methodology of Herodotus when taxonomizing the category of human that the Irish are.[2] He insists that the Irish practice of seasonal migration for the purpose of grazing their animals ‘appeareth plaine to be the manner of the Scithians’; their manner of dress, style of hair is a ‘Custome from the Scythyans; their arms ‘are verye Scythyan; their battle cries ‘Scithyanlike’; their funeral rites ‘vncivile and Scithianlike’—all which lead Spenser ‘by the same reasone [as Herodotus]’ to ‘Conclude that the Irishe are discended from the Scythyans for that they vse even to this daie some of the same ceremonies which the Scythyans aunciently vsed’.[3] François Hartog has shown how pliant and metaphorical such a method can be when deployed for an ideological purpose.[4] Hartog’s whole thesis is the fiction of the self, created in the systematic differentiation of the other. But using Herodotus as the model for Spenser’s story of a colonial imperative—indeed, as the same mode for all race thinking in the early modern period—assumes that a set of ethnic practices were not also characterized as ‘natural’ to certain groups. It assumes that these ethnic practices did not, in rhetorical terms, calcify as natural facts pertaining to specific bodies.

To assert that Spenser’s race thinking is the descendant of Herodotus is to assert that the differences reinforced by the logic are ethnic practices and not physiological facts. But if, as Spenser declares in his View of the Present State of Ireland, ‘[T]he minde, followethe muche the Temparature of the bodye’, then bodies are deeply implicated in moral messages.[5] We are all well aware of the ways in which the moral encoding in The Faerie Queene can be read in ways that are unattached to real bodies or real people. Indeed this has been our standard reading practice with The Faerie Queene. The question is not whether whiteness or blackness is attached to actual bodies that are white or black: the question is whether this moral encoding attaches at all. And what happens when we entertain the possibility that it might? Allegory is wax-soft to the impress of ideology: do the embodied terms of Spenser’s religious allegory mean anything apart from the allegory itself? Or, might we read Spenser’s allegory as both drawing from and producing understandings of a racialized body?

We know from Bryskett’s A Discovrse of Civill Life that the character of ‘Maister Spenser’ is deeply interested in how the ‘soule being immortall’ can be ‘troubled with Lethargies, Phrensies, Melancholie, drunkennesse, and such other passions, by which we see her ouercome, and to be debarred from her office and function’.[6] He is here questioning precisely whether the soul is immortal because its implication in material matter might throw that status into question. Spenser the character (if not the man) in Bryskett’s Discourse is troubled by the soul’s transactions with the body, and with the possibility that it might therefore be offered corruption from the body, and might proffer corruption to it. If, in this context, we then try to understand the whiteness of Reformed bodies in The Faerie Queene—and the extent to which Catholic figures are negrified—a different kind of religious allegory might come into view. The Sans brothers, for example, might signal Spenser framing race in terms of not just difference but specifically lack: all of the brothers are descendants of Night, and lacking in faith, joy and law. But Redcrosse Knight also lacks: armor that fits, experience, etc. Nonetheless, he is able to grow and develop; the Sans brothers cannot and do not. In other words, there does not seem to be the possibility of conversion for them.[7] The reform of Redcrosse can be effected by Una; but in spite of her representing the one catholic (small c) church, many Catholic (big C) figures in the The Faerie Queene remain obdurate to her influence. Why is conversion impossible for them?

To what extent is Spenser’s allegory enlivened by the particularities of bodies? Ayanna Thompson rightly points out that ‘a racialized epistemology does not have to be based on a semiotically charged interpretation of skin color so much as a semiotically charged interpretation of bodiliness’.[8] Race thinking, then, should not be understood as adhering only to surface markings; it attaches to bodies that are characterized as different in a variety of ways—through blood, temperament, sinfulness. We as Spenserians, trained to consider the relationship between figure and meaning, should examine race in the bodies in Faerieland that are charged with a Christian typology of black and white. The Faerie Queene is overrun with Paynims, Idolaters and Infidels, whose exaggerated physical features invoke Irish, New World, Eastern and African peoples, and whose physical excess shows them committed to the flesh and not the spirit. These moments no doubt reflect the incarnate experience of the Roman Catholic Church. But they also reflect attachment to the law of man that is grounded in the flesh. In St. Paul’s pronouncement, the law that resides in the ritual experience of the flesh is weak precisely because flesh is poor rock on which to build a church.[9] Spenser’s religious allegory dwells on this problem, and persistently returns to the need to reform the flesh, even to its humoral complexion, before a life of the spirit is possible. But for those who live outside of the spirit—Catholics, ‘Saracens’, and savages—their error resides in flesh itself. Race is not only about understandings of ‘actual’ physiological difference. It is also about a construct of power relations naturalized through a fantasy of the body, the supple figure upon which ideology is scored.[10]

Race studies looks at (proto-)colonial relations, theories of embodiment, the politics of representation, religion and conversion, performance practices, custom, gender and misogyny, all of which have been and continue to be of interest to the study of Spenser. Acknowledging that critical race studies and Spenser studies have shared concerns calls us to put Spenser and race in more deliberate and sustained conversation. To that end, we are coediting a special issue of Spenser Studies on ‘Spenser and Race’. Volume 35 (January 2021) intends to provide new avenues into the study of Spenser’s works, using a focus on race to understand more fully the ethnographic impulse across Spenser’s works, and how his works betray an investment in how bodies differ in their very kind. We believe that the expertise of Spenserians can offer much to the current understanding of early modern racial formation—the deep study of literary modes and figures, hermeneutical controversies, early modern politics and court culture, theological controversies, the historical and literary formation of love and desire, the influence of continental texts and traditions on English literature. Spenserians, on the other hand, need to more fully engage the robust conversation that has been occurring in early modern critical race studies for more than thirty years. Attending to race in early modern English literature is not a new area of study; it is only newly brought to the study of Spenser.[11] Even as Spenserians continue to undercover and appreciate the poet’s deep learning, literary dexterity and linguistic ingenuity, we must also grapple with the role that Spenser, as politician and poet, has played in histories of colonial violence and racial oppression.                

Dennis Austin Britton (University of New Hampshire)
Kimberly Anne Coles (University of Maryland)

[1] Speaking broadly about Spenser, Gary Waller asserts, ‘race…was starting to acquire some of its modern impact in Spenser’s time, and his career and writings make distinctive contributions to those later developments’ (Edmund Spenser: A Literary Life [New York: Palgrave, 1994], 18). Waller makes this important assertation but does not examine the ‘distinctive contributions.’ Also see Margo Hendricks’s ‘‘Obscured by dreams’: Race, Empire, and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream,’ Shakespeare Quarterly 47 (1996), 37–60, in which Hendricks examines the racialization of Spenser’s and Shakespeare’s Indian fairies; Kent Lehnhof’s ‘Incest and Empire in the ‘Faerie Queen,’ ELH 73.1 (2006), 215-43, which engages Spenser’s view of the Irish, but offers a reading of incest in Book 3 as relaying Spenser’s fixation on dynastic racial purity; and Dennis Austin Britton’s ‘Ovidian Baptism in Book 2 of The Faerie Queene‘, in Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern English Romance (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), 35-58, which examines Spenser’s treatment of ‘Paynim’ racial and religious difference. For a study that shows sensitivity to Spenser’s engagement with the racial difference of none-Irish groups, see Benedict Robinson’s discussion of Spenser’s Saracens, ‘Secret Faith,’ in Islam and Early Modern English Literature: The Politics of Romance from Spenser to Milton (New York, Palgrave, 2007), 27-56.

[2] Richard McCabe, Spensers Monstrous Regiment: Elizabethan Ireland and the Poetics of Difference (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 148.

[3] Edmund Spenser, Spensers Prose Works, vol. 9. Rudolf Gottfried (ed.) In The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition. 11 vols: 1932-58, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1949), 97; 99; 106; 103; 105; 107.

[4] François Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: the Representation of the Other in the Writing of History, trans. Janet Lloyd (Berkeley and Los Angeles: California University Press, 1988).

[5] Spensers Prose Works, 9:119.

[6] Ludowick Bryskett, A Discovrse of Civill Life: Containing the Ethike part of Morall Philosophie. Fit for the instructing of a Gentleman in the course of a vertuous life (STC 3958), 274.

[7] Vanessa Corredera on Twitter, July 19, 2018.

[8] Ayanna Thompson, Performing Race and Torture on the Early Modern Stage (New York: Routledge, 2009), 4.

[9] See Romans 2:28-29, ‘For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God’.

[10] Kim F. Hall has rightly underscored: that, ‘[t]he easy association of race with modern science ignores the fact that language itself creates differences within social organization and that race was then (as it is now) a social construct that is fundamentally more about power and culture than biological difference’ (Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995], 6).

[11]  Margo Hendricks powerfully asserted in ‘Coloring the Past, Rewriting our Future: RaceB4Race’, a keynote given at the January 2019 ‘Race and Periodization’ conference, why scholars who discuss race in the early modern period must engage those—primarily women of color—who have done prior work in the field: not to do so is akin to white settler colonialism. The lecture is available online through the Folger Shakespeare Library:


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Cite as:

Dennis Austin Britton and Kimberly Anne Coles, "Beyond the Pale," Spenser Review 50.1.5 (Winter 2020). Accessed February 28th, 2024.
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