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Roze Hentschell, St Paul’s Cathedral Precinct in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Spatial Practices
by Isabel Dollar

Roze Hentschell. St Paul’s Cathedral Precinct in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Spatial Practices. Early Modern Literary Geographies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2020. 284 pp.  ISBN: 9780198848813. £60.00 hardback.


Roze Hentschell’s St Paul’s Cathedral Precinct in Early Modern Literature and Culture reintroduces the reader to the neighbourhood of St Paul’s not merely as a geographic delimitation but as a site of layered, varying practices: a place of walking, working, praying, listening, purchasing, viewing, and reading. Building upon the frameworks of cultural geographers such as Nigel Thrift, Michel de Certeau, and Marlene Eberhart, Hentschell establishes her monograph as not only the history of a cultural landmark, but also the study of patterns of practices, and thus frames her examination of St Paul’s Cathedral as a negotiation between different forces of human action. To do so, Hentschell weaves together a wide variety of sources – sermons, pamphlets, royal proclamations, official cathedral documents and surveys, popular ballads, printed prose, and dramatic texts – to capture and bring to life the many uses of St Paul’s Cathedral precinct.  Hentschell adds new dimensionality to our understanding of St Paul’s and the texts it inspires and produces, adeptly demonstrating for the reader how both site and texts are best read within the wider practices and contexts of early modern life.

Hentschell arranges her first four chapters by geographical site, with each chapter dedicated to the spatial features, history, and inhabitants of a specific area of the St Paul’s Cathedral precinct. Chapter One, ‘Paul’s Nave’, examines the main interior of the cathedral, but soon populates that space with the precinct’s inhabitants. Through close readings of early modern popular prose from Thomas Dekker, Thomas Middleton, and Robert Green, Hentschell produces a nuanced reading of the ‘Paul’s Walker’, namely the flamboyantly dressed gallant out to see and be seen walking within St Paul’s, and recontextualises and deepens our understanding of this frequently cited early modern commonplace. Chapter Two, ‘Paul’s Cross’, examines the outdoor pulpit of St Paul’s, and the literary exchange between the popular prose of writers including Philip Stubbes, Stephen Gosson, Barnabie Rich, and Thomas Nashe, and the sermons preached at the cathedral. Hentschell demonstrates how the literary flourishes and devices found in prose tracts concerned with prideful dress were subsequently employed by the cathedral’s preachers and redirected at the audience assembled at St Paul’s Cross, who, too, were accused of adorning themselves pridefully, effectively personalising and localising the arguments of the prose tracts. Chapter Three, ‘Paul’s Churchyard’, examines both the temporary and permanent structures erected outside the cathedral, and the yard in which early modern visitors and inhabitants moved, shopped, and occasionally died. Building upon Tim Cresswell’s notion of ‘out of place’ behaviours, this chapter investigates how the occupants of Paul’s churchyard both acted within and transgressed social boundaries, paying particular attention to the clergy and lay inhabitants of the College of Minor Canons, a residence within the site (106). Chapter Four, ‘Paul’s Boys’, examines the performers, audience, and performance space of The Children of Paul’s, the company of child performers attached to the cathedral precinct. Hentschell traces the representation of The Children of Paul’s as singers and scholars in the early works of John Marston, demonstrating how Marston amplifies the children’s status as choristers and denizens of Paul’s within his dramatic texts. 

The final chapter, ‘Paul’s Work’, examines various calls during the period for the renovation and preservation of St Paul’s following its partial destruction by fire in 1561, placing renovation efforts within the wider negotiation of St Paul’s symbolic and rhetorical place in city- and nation-building. ‘Paul’s Work’, which became synonymous with a process of ongoing labour with little progress, was a project bogged down by lack of organisation and resources, but more significantly, by a lack of cohesive understanding as to which agents bore responsibility for the cathedral, and namely whether it was the purview of the City of London, the Church, or the Crown. Hentschell provides insightful analysis of a remarkably understudied text, and one of the primary voices for dedicated restoration of St Paul’s, namely Henry Farley’s 1616 tract, The Complaint of Pauls to All Christian Souls. Readers of The Spenser Review may take particular interest in how the urban landscape, in both its physical and literary forms, played a key part in constructions of national identity. In particular, Hentschell demonstrates that Farley frames St Paul’s restoration as dependent on a shared effort by the king, church, and both city and country citizens. The unity of the urban and the rural is thus promoted as necessary for both civic and national development. In illuminating this dynamic, Hentschell contributes an important addendum to the examination of the urban in the formation of nationhood, and offers a key contrast to studies of nation building in Spenser’s pastoral landscapes.

Throughout this book, Hentschell produces a comprehensive and deftly researched history of St Paul’s Cathedral, its neighbourhood, and its inhabitants, but the greatest strength of this book lies in its nuanced readings and Hentschell’s commitment to challenging binaries that appear to arise within the subject of her research. Throughout this monograph, Hentschell troubles the division of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ uses of the cathedral, demonstrating that the church infrastructure of St Paul’s was intimately linked to secular practices and at times profited from those relationships. In Chapter One, Hentschell demonstrates that Paul’s nave functioned as a place of commerce for churchmen and laity alike, best exemplified by the scribes who acted as go-betweens for members of the church and the public. Hentschell expands upon this theme when demonstrating the literary exchange between the popular writings set and sold within St Paul’s Churchyard and the sermons preached at St Paul’s pulpit in Chapter Two, exploring the symbiotic but contentions relationship between St Paul’s and the booksellers in Paul’s Churchyard in Chapter Three. Hentschell firmly establishes that the fabric of St Paul’s cannot be divided into religious and lay sectors, but that the boundaries between church life and city life were porous and need to be read on a spectrum of activity. Not only does Hentschell unravel distinctions between religious and secular life at St Paul’s, she also reveals that many of the practices within the cathedral precinct resisted qualification as ‘in’ or ‘out of place’ behaviour, demonstrating how practices at St Paul’s were simultaneously socially acceptable and socially transgressive. As presented in Chapter Three, corporal punishment and judicial executions were carried out in St Paul’s outdoor spaces with the sanction of the Crown, and yet these actions were met with distaste from a public that saw it as a profanation of a holy site. Commercial buildings were erected within the churchyard area with the approval of the Church, and St Paul’s became an epicentre for early modern booksellers and book buyers; yet the idling book-buyer, as represented by Ben Jonson, John Heath, and Thomas Churchyard, became a target of ire, in part because of the loitering book purchaser’s perceived abuse of the churchyard area. Hentschell’s readings confirm that socially transgressive behaviour is indeed in the eye of the beholder, and that a single act can be simultaneously in and out of place, further upsetting the binaries that are suggested by her examination of spatial practice.  

Along with challenging binary divisions, another strength of this text lies in Hentschell’s approach to longstanding assumptions surrounding early modern child players. Hentschell refutes the claim that the spectators for children’s company performances were necessarily a more erudite or learned audience, and instead suggests that much of the audience was derived from the community of St Paul’s – both those living within the precinct and those visiting it – and was thus a microcosm of urban life with varying levels of means and education. Indeed, Hentschell’s analysis of The Children of Paul’s is a necessary reference point for scholars of the early modern English children’s companies, as she carefully demarcates key differences between Paul’s Boys and their contemporaries, the Children of the Queen’s Revels, in terms of their respective company structures, the physical space of their theatres, and their audiences. Hentschell’s argument that ‘the boys were choristers for the cathedral first and only occasionally actors’ is indeed thoroughly supported by the evidence she provides and is a noteworthy contribution to discussion of the ‘professional’ early modern child actor, and perhaps grounds for a future study (144).

St Paul’s Cathedral Precinct in Early Modern Literature and Culture is a text dedicated to the imaginative reconstruction of an early modern place and concerned with exploring the full range of the potential inhabitants and visitors to that place. Hentschell attests that St Paul’s Cathedral precinct was the haunt and home of men and women, adults and children, criminals and lawmen. However, while Hentschell takes care to draw the reader’s attention to those inhabitants of St Paul’s who are often left at the margins of the written record, it is notable that most of the voices captured within this text are adult men with varying degrees of learning and authority. One major exception is the comprehensive close reading of the 1598 bishop’s visitation documents that Hentschell provides in Chapter Three, which centres women’s voices and their practices within the cathedral precinct. With this, Hentschell opens the door for further study in examining the practices of women, immigrants, or other subaltern and marginalised individuals within the early modern urban landscape.

Ultimately, what Hentschell has successfully produced in this book is not only a history, but a synesthetic experience. She paints for her reader the sights, sounds, textures, and even smells of a bustling early modern locale, and fills that space with individuals who leap from the historical and literary record. The nuanced interplay between prose tracts, poetry, dramatic texts, letters, surveys, and a host of other written records weaves a full story not only of place, but, as the subtitle to this monograph suggests, also of practice, the activity that makes up day to day life. This text resurrects and rediscovers how quotidian use of the various features of St Paul’s – the cathedral nave, the cross, the courtyard, the roof, the college of minor canons, the grammar school, the makeshift playhouse – informed early modern understanding St Paul’s and its greater place in the fabric of the city and the nation. In short, St Paul’s Cathedral Precinct in Early Modern Literature and Culture is a valuable study for scholars of early modern literature and drama, cultural historians, and cultural geographers; and provides significant insights into how human activity shapes the use of a culturally significant place and how such a place shapes our sense of self in turn.

Isabel Dollar

University of St Andrews


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Cite as:

Isabel Dollar, "Roze Hentschell, St Paul’s Cathedral Precinct in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Spatial Practices," Spenser Review (Spring-Summer 2022). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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