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Melissa E. Sanchez. “‘Modesty or Comeliness’: The Predicament of Reform Theology in Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion.” Renascence. Fall 2012, Vol. 65, Issue 1, pp. 5-24. Abstract by Melissa Sanchez. 

            Since at least the writings of C. S. Lewis, critics have widely agreed that Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion offer a firmly Protestant alternative to Petrarchan convention. According to this tradition, previous sonnet sequences in England and on the Continent anatomize the pain of desires that are at once illicit and unrequited; Spenser’s poems of courtship and marriages (published together in 1595) tell a different story, one in which lawful desires are pursued through sincere courtship and satisfied in Christian marriage.


           Such readings suppose a sharp break between the Catholic idealization of lifelong virginity and the Protestant institution of companionate marriage. Yet Catholic and Protestant views of marriage were not so clearly distinguished in the late middle ages and the early years of Reformation and Counter-Reformation debate—an affinity that can be explained in part to their shared Augustinian heritage. As Dyan Elliott and Felicity Riddy have shown, by the early fourteenth century an ideal of companionate marriage was being urged from pulpits and celebrated in romances. Moreover, as Merry Wiesner-Hanks and Ruth Mazzo Karras have demonstrated, even the Catholic prohibition of clerical marriage was a relatively recent invention geared at shoring up the authority of priests in relation to secular rulers and established firmly only in the twelfth century. From the early introduction of this doctrine through at least the third Tridentine council, a number of Catholic thinkers maintained that priests should be allowed to marry and have families (after protracted debate the doctrine of clerical celibacy was officially affirmed by the Council of Trent in 1563). Nor was marriage unambivalently embraced in Protestant countries. Most Reformers, including Luther and Calvin, agreed that a celibate life was in theory holiest, but they argued that because true celibacy was impossible for all but a chosen few, the vast majority of believers were better off married. In addition, Protestant writers disagreed about the proper relationship between physical desire and marriage, with Luther affirming the holiness of conjugal relations and Calvin insisting that even wedded love retained a hint of sin. Such doubt over the spiritual status of marriage was perhaps most obviously manifested in the refusal of many English Protestants, including Elizabeth I, to accept communion from married bishops.

            This essay argues that rather than recommend a singular, exclusively Protestant ideal of companionate marriage, Spenser’s poetry registers not only conflicts between Protestant and Catholic doctrine but also debates within each religion. The speaker of the Amoretti and Epithalamion expresses profound anxiety about both his own desires and his beloved’s responses, and this anxiety itself manifests tensions within Reformation and Counterreformation thought over questions of faith and ethics. In the Amoretti, these questions are pondered through the alternation between idolatrous compliment and vicious attack of the beloved that has so disturbed critics. In Epithalamion, these problems appear in the frequent allusions to Olympian adultery and Catholic ceremony, allusions that trouble the poem’s ostensible celebration of Protestant union. In reading these poems as more than English Protestant propaganda, we can come to a more nuanced understanding of the place of courtship and marriage in the full range of Christian thought, which involved complex ethical and theological dilemmas posed by early modern debates about desire, relation to otherness, and proper conduct in the world. 


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Cite as:

"Articles," Spenser Review 43.1.17 (Spring-Summer 2013). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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