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Neil Rhodes, Common: The Development of Literary Culture in Sixteenth Century England
by Beth Quitslund

Neil Rhodes, Common: The Development of Literary Culture in Sixteenth Century England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. ix+345 pp. ISBN: 978019870410-2. £71 hardback.


In this capacious study of sixteenth-century English literary culture, Neil Rhodes builds a detailed and substantial case for two main points. The first is that the ‘literary renaissance’ arrived in England comparatively late because of Protestant wariness about the human imagination. On its own merits, this point, which has been covered before, does not really break new ground. However, Rhodes’s treatment of it is highly original insofar as he connects it to his second point, which is that England’s literary renaissance depended on forging connections between various senses of the ‘common’. Rhodes argues that before England could have writers such as Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare, the English sense of ‘common’ as social inclusiveness through a vertical integration had to more or less align with the horizontal sense of ‘common’ as universal human value or shared culture. The former harbours as a semi-synonym the pejorative sense of ‘base’, while the latter privileges the transnational culture of élite letters. Over the course of the sixteenth century, authors, readers, and audiences came to believe that the moral-aesthetic work performed by vernacular literature contributed to the well-being of the English commonwealth, potentially available to all (or at least many) rather than only an élite few. (Of particular interest to readers of The Spenser Review is that Rhodes discovers the critical innovations for English renaissance poetry in Spenser’s works.) Although a thesis of such ambition is bound to raise some objections, the story that Rhodes has to tell is fascinating, and this book deserves an important place in our understanding of how early modern English literature developed.

This long and densely argued book is divided into three chronological parts. The first, primarily covering the period from the start of the sixteenth century through to 1547, presents the emergent possibilities for and backlash against interactions between ideas of the common; the third describes the détente between social inclusion and literary values achieved in the Elizabethan period; and the single chapter in the second argues for the culture of translation in the mid-Tudor period as the pivot or transition between the two. Although chapter 1 is included in the first part, it presents Rhodes’s key terms and lines of argument, and serves as the introduction to the work as a whole.

The narrative that Rhodes wants to tell, then begins in chapter 2, with Desiderius Erasmus’s initial visit to England in 1499, when he began promoting the study of Greek as an essential ingredient of humanist learning. This promotion was met with enthusiasm, but also generated controversy. Greek was the pure well of the New Testament and could thus provide the basis for a new universal (i.e., Latin) bible. It was also proximate to primitive Christianity and the ideal of biblical texts recited and sung by ordinary people: ‘pure and common Greek’ in Rhodes’s formulation (28). The koine that made the Bible’s Greek accessible in antiquity, however, made it ‘common’ (in the sense of ‘base’) relative to literary Attic. Erasmus thus turned to Greek literature in an effort to bridge the gap between the common as universal and the common as socially inclusive, and found a compromise in the satirical writings of Lucian. Erasmus’s own Adagia and Colloquia are based in a tension between élite universal learning and a concern for the voice and welfare of the common people.

Erasmus’s friendship with England’s most famous early Tudor humanist, Thomas More, illustrates the dynamics of the emerging literary culture in this period. In Rhodes’s view, these two writers exemplify differing approaches to the disparate senses of the common. Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, modelled on Greek playfulness, portrays More as both universal and common, a champion of truth over popular opinion but also a man of the people. For Erasmus, the two versions of the common constantly slip into one another through Christian paradox. For More, by contrast, these two versions are irreconcilable: popular opinion will always fall short of universal truth. He compartmentalises his Utopia into two separate parts, the first ‘poetry’ in the form of a dialogue sensitive to political nuance, the second ‘philosophy’ presented as an uncompromising defence of common ownership (68-9, quotation marks original). As Rhodes observes, this second part shows little of Erasmus’s affinity for the force of love and folly in human nature: Utopian law harshly punishes sex crimes. Despite this difference, both Erasmus and More ultimately valued Greek primarily as a model for élite (culturally universal, socially exclusive) writing, whereas early sixteenth-century Protestants like Sir John Cheke saw it as a model for (socially universal) pure religion in the (culturally exclusive) vernacular.

Although these productive tensions meant that by 1520 ‘the conditions existed for a literary renaissance in England’ (78), the third chapter contends that the Reformation’s iconophobic suspicion of human imagination interrupted its development. This claim in itself is not unfamiliar, but Rhodes’s association of religious debate with the idea of the common allows for a fresh reconsideration. As he demonstrates, attitudes toward elite learning and social inclusiveness underwent complex alterations in the next three decades, depending on confessional identity. Whereas pre-Reformation church writers, such as Martin Dorp, had sometimes criticised Erasmus for elitism, Catholics rarely made this charge once the Reformation was underway. Instead, it was reformers like Martin Luther and William Tyndale who criticised the literary as elitist and false, while English Catholics became more inclined to acknowledge the universal value of moral fiction. Tyndale in fact justified his bible translation by distinguishing it from literary composition, while Erasmus and More began to qualify or reverse their earlier endorsement of bible translation. All these writers underwent a ‘traumatic process of taking sides and changing places’ (98), one that impeded the emergence of a common literary culture. Henry VIII’s conservative reversal in 1543, for example, which specifically targeted bible-reading by the vulgar, only exacerbated the gap between élite learning and social inclusiveness. Rhodes is clear, however, that England’s failure to develop a ‘literary sphere beyond the court itself’ (105-6) was primarily an effect of religious movements rather than Henrician or Marian tyranny.

Chapter 4 comprises Part II of the study, which brings the narrative up to the mid-Tudor period and argues that the practice of translation ‘becomes the seedbed of Elizabethan literature’ (120) through providing the imaginative and literary resources on which the true literary renaissance would be based. Though acknowledging texts like Richard Tottel’s Miscellany, A Mirror for Magistrates, and Gorboduc, Rhodes notes that ‘translation is the dominant form of literary activity’ (126). Less overtly imaginative than writing new literature, translation drew less ire from strict reformers and suspicious Catholics alike. Focusing on writers such as Katherine Parr, William Thomas, Richard Travener, Lord Morely, and William Golding, Rhodes shows that these mid-century writers came to believe that translation contributed to the English store of knowledge and cultural capital, increasing the impression that making such material common was a good thing. Though much of the impetus for mid-Tudor translation was religious, Rhodes identifies Laurence Humphrey’s Interpretatio Legarum (1559) as an intervention that binds together the value of sacred and secular translations. In this, he returns to Erasmus’s sense of continuity between ancient moral philosophy and Christian concerns.

Much of this is very convincing, and the chapters in Part I in particular are among the most accomplished parts of the study, both for their easy familiarity with the details of humanist culture in this period and their nuanced use of the concept of the common to parse literary debates. My main reservation is about how we are defining ‘literary renaissance’ to exclude mid-Tudor and even some Henrician literature. The book does not give an explicit definition, but it seems to mean something like ‘original imaginative literature integrating Classical and Christian influences in the vernacular’. It might also include works ‘intended for a wide audience and initiating a continuous literary tradition’, but that is less clear: Rhodes does not tell us whether reaching the right form of ‘common’ is a condition for, or an integral part of, literary renaissances. In either case, there are mid-Tudor writers who might seem to qualify. For example, John Heywood (whom Rhodes mistakes in passing for his Seneca-translating son Jasper) seems like a promising candidate, working in drama, explicitly Erasmian proverbs, and both lyric and allegorical poetry. Critics have taken different positions on his humanism and view of the commons,[1] but he certainly addresses Rhodes’s concerns in original imaginative writing. If Heywood’s Catholicism disqualifies him, William Baldwin is another contender. In chapter 1, Rhodes notes that The Mirror for Magistrates participates in Tudor discussion of the commonwealth, but then sidesteps it without further comment in chapter 4 and dismisses Beware the Cat as a literary unicorn printed too late (1570) to really count. Moreover, Rhodes acknowledges the healthy state of mid-Tudor drama and the challenge it poses for his thesis, but passes it by, saying that ‘We may speculate that it was the priority of the spoken word over the image that made drama acceptable to reformers’ (106-7).

Be that as it may, Part III of Common describes the emergence of a full literary renaissance in the late Tudor period. In the final three chapters Rhodes organises his investigation by genre – verse, prose fiction, and drama – which allows him to emphasise the specifically literary dimension of his story. What is presumably different about the authors discussed in these chapters is a new relationship to both imagination and the common. Some of them aspire to the notion that their literary art both appeals to a wide public and brings moral and/or aesthetic value rather than only pastime. This notion remains aspirational rather than realised: the writers in each genre struggle to negotiate the tension between the common as universal learning and the common as socially inclusive. Nonetheless, Rhodes articulates ways in which the common serves as the organising principle of much literary labour in the late sixteenth century.

In Rhodes’s telling, the main challenge for Elizabethan poets was to find an appropriate style, which encompassed the match between form, content, and reader. Given Protestant emphasis on social inclusion and cultural emphasis on rank, they were left with another conundrum about the common, which Rhodes also nuances here with the related idea of the ‘mean’ (meaning either not-extreme or base). Although he considers the confusions of amatory, heroic, and divine verse as they strove to find their respective levels in English, much of his emphasis is on verse form. Paradigmatically, Rhodes points to mid-sixteenth century translators of Virgil: despite Surrey’s promising blank verse from the 1540s, the most reprinted sixteenth-century version of the Aeneid was Thomas Phaer’s 1562 translation, nearly falling into common ‘ballad metre’, while Richard Stanyhurst’s attempt at correction in 1582 foundered on the combination of élite classical hexameters with invented ‘hyper-English’ diction (177). Psalm versification likewise suffered a bifurcation between low and high. The congregationally sung Whole Booke of Psalmes was a triumph of the common, but its ballad metre operated ‘at the lowest reaches of the stylistic spectrum’ (185). By contrast, the metrically inventive Sidney psalter languished in manuscript, with the result that the only psalms in a high style that most people encountered were in Coverdale’s Great Bible prose; Erasmus’s proposition that the Psalms could serve as a meeting point between Christian and Classical letters thus hit a dead end.

In this description of style, Rhodes makes assumptions about the social valence of metrical forms that even the sixteenth-century commentators he quotes do not share. This may be because he confounds the syllabically imprecise, stress-based form of older folk ballads with the precise literary poulter’s measure and fourteeners developed in the late Henrician and Edwardian periods; it does not help that he relies on outdated sources that incorrectly connect fourteener metrical psalms to popular tunes. Literary verse did move largely away from these forms in the later Elizabethan period, but I am sceptical that the generations before that understood them as a ‘low’ style. If they did not, the ‘struggle’ over metre had as much to do with changing taste as it did confusion over how best to be ‘common’.

The culmination of this part of the story is Philip Sidney’s theory of poetry and Spenser’s practice. Both Spenser’s life and work occupied a space somewhere between the élite and the rustic, and it is this ‘middle ground’ where the various tensions Rhodes has described – between levels of style, between ‘imagination, poetry, the common’, between Classical and Christian – are fruitfully aligned (198). In chapter 1, Rhodes had described Spenser and Gabriel Harvey’s Three Proper Letters (1588) as reminiscent of the paradigmatic Erasmus-More humanist friendship, but his Spenser is shaped by ‘the pragmatic tradition of English humanism which presents itself as commonwealth thinking’ (20) and thus reconciles that horizontal universalism with the vertical. In the context of chapter 5’s focus on verse style, he points out that the shepherds of The Shepheardes Calender are not gentlemen, but nor are they Reformation ploughmen at labour; instead, in the range of social voices they sound like ‘Universitie men’ of the middling sort (201). Moreover, by domesticating Theocritus in this range of English, Spenser debuts a new form of ‘pure and common Greek’ (200).

The Shepheardes Calender is, however, very much engaged in the Elizabethan search for style. It is The Faerie Queene that, in Rhodes’s view, fully reconciles extremes within a mean. It touches on a range of poetic registers, from Ariosto to homely English romance. It also redefines a poetry of ‘darke conceit’ – a phrase ‘provocatively’ referencing evangelical denunciation of scriptural misinterpretation – through Book 3 as a form of imagination that can lead to virtuous action. At the same time, the 1590 Faerie Queene thus displaces the purity of virginity with chastity, which is both the common lot of humankind and appropriate to Protestant ideals. How exactly the change in the poem’s view of image-making here redeems the earlier Books is not entirely clear to me, but Rhodes makes a reasonable case for the change itself. The poem also makes a prosodic statement. A decade earlier, The Shepheardes Calender’s alternation between pentameter and tetrameter suggested a prosody in flux, and Spenser debated Harvey about English hexameters in 1580. The Faerie Queene settles definitively on rhymed iambic pentameter, less alien than Greek verse but more elevated than ballad metre, a truly English common and ‘the resolution … of the sixteenth century search for style’ (208). This is a fairly teleological treatment of the poem, and some Spenserians may demur at reading it in terms of reconciliation rather than tension or contradiction. Yet Rhodes impressively traces Spenser’s evolving interest in the common throughout his career, and this section makes an interesting contribution to our understanding of how Spenser’s poetics fit into the arc of Elizabethan concerns about poetry and versification.

The final two chapters on prose fiction and drama consider the common through the question of audience demographics: how might prose writers present Italian-inspired romances as both morally serious and popularly appealing, and how might dramatists offer plays that suggest élite standing but also attract theatre-goers? In chapter 6, Rhodes ably contextualises his description of English short stories with the moral, social, and even Reformed religious commitments that the English writers perceived in their Italian prose sources. William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure (1566) strove, for example, to balance stories of ancient Roman virtue with ‘novelles’ (in the first use of this word to refer to short prose fiction) that, even if on the trashy side, encouraged readers to identify with the interpersonal scenarios depicted within. George Pettie’s The Petite Palace (1576) went even further in conceiving of a virtuous and socially inclusive common, offering episodes from Roman history that emphasised domestic intimacy and civil conversation – although the improbability of some of Pettie’s moral glosses suggest the difficulty of combining lower-class titillation with upper-class civility. Rhodes makes his demonstration with substantial summary of the plots of these (to many readers) unfamiliar stories. In a few places I wondered about the audience reception effects that he posits. For example, did women readers of Painter’s Italianate ‘novelles’ actually find them to ‘extend the realm of the possible, in social and sexual terms’ to the point that ‘women can be seen to be agents in their own lives’ (236)? It is possible, but Rhodes offers no evidence for the claim. Nonetheless, this suggestion and others like it point to the associations between the market, moral instruction, and social rank that characterise the literary in this period.

The struggle for social status on the part of Elizabethan theatres in the 1590s is well known. Among Rhodes’s contributions in chapter 7 is the claim that by 1590, when academic drama and the children’s theatre had mostly disappeared, the debate about theatre’s merits and demerits shifted from moral terms (does play-watching inculcate vice?) to socio-aesthetic terms (what social vision of life do plays offer?). That is, the debate became a literary one. Rhodes’s attention is narrower than in the previous chapters, focusing on the careers of Marlowe and Shakespeare. With Marlowe, we return to some of the earlier thematics in this study, where a commitment to Greek stories and sources positions the dramatist as a learned bard, on the one hand, but one who uses popular spectacle to attract audiences, on the other. Shakespeare likewise struggles to balance an appeal to the common with a distance from the stigma of market popularity. Both Hamlet and the Henry IV plays feature protagonists popular with the people but who nonetheless harbour a disdain for the common – and both negotiate this tension through the aesthetics of acting. Yet while the Henry IV plays clearly appeal to a popular audience, Hamlet, written at the end of the decade, played in a theatre facing a challenge for the higher end of the market. It is designed ‘“to please the wiser sort”’, as Gabriel Harvey put it in his assessment, and highly conscious of its artistic status (288). Whereas Hal’s father lectures him on the effectiveness of his political acting, Hamlet lectures the players on the aesthetic appropriateness of theirs.

For all the objections one might make about the details (I have made a few), this is an extraordinary study. Without denying or side-lining the social and economic dimensions, Rhodes sets out to tell a distinctively literary story about Tudor English culture. He covers an enormous range of materials from disparate periods, yet rarely sounds like anything but an expert. If Rhodes’s definition of a ‘literary renaissance’ remains a bit fuzzy, his treatment of it will resonate with the impression of many literary critics that something special happened in the final decades of the sixteenth century.


Beth Quitslund

Ohio University


[1] See, for example, Judith Rice Henderson, ‘John Heywood’s The Spider and the Flie: Educating Queen and Country’, Studies in Philology, 96.3 (1999), 241-74 and Thomas Betteridge, ‘John Heywood and Court Drama’ in The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature, ed. Pincombe and Shrank (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 170-86.


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  • George Smith 4 months, 1 week ago

    The book not only illuminates the influence of social and cultural factors on literary creativity, but also reveals the broad context of the era. Rhodes masterfully integrates explorations of different literary forms. I even wrote a paper on it, used essay help, found for this. His language is vivid and accessible, making complex topics relatable. This book had a profound impact on my understanding of the era.

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  • Buffalo Mobile Truck Repair 4 months, 1 week ago

    The former harbours as a semi-synonym the pejorative sense of ‘base’, while the latter privileges the transnational culture of élite letters.

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Cite as:

Beth Quitslund, "Neil Rhodes, Common: The Development of Literary Culture in Sixteenth Century England," Spenser Review 52.1.10 (Winter 2022). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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