BMCR 2019.08.35

English Mythography in its European Context, 1500-1650. Classical presences

, English Mythography in its European Context, 1500-1650. Classical presences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. x, 283. ISBN 9780198807704 $90.00.

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The study of Renaissance mythography has long retained two relatively conservative scholarly assumptions: first, that the best meanings of classical texts are what they originally meant, such that later rewritings or revisions lessen them; and second, that Renaissance mythography often represents an incomplete, primitive form of modern philology. Renaissance mythography is thus often invidiously compared to ancient origins or modern science—or sometimes both, as in Jean Seznec’s magisterial and influential book, The Survival of the Pagan Gods. For Seznec, Renaissance mythography—by which he mostly meant Italian mythography—both atavistically retained bad medieval traditions and failed to recover the classics’ original, authentic meaning. English mythography, which drew on Italian and other Continental sources, was doubly belated and derivative.

Anna Maria-Hartmann’s new book, English Mythography in its European Context, 1500–1650, recovers English mythography as an independently interesting genre. She questions Seznec’s assumptions, drawing on reception theory, which prioritizes the local meanings texts take on in new contexts, as well as the dynamic relationship between readers and texts, over some pure, original meaning. English writers, Hartmann argues, “transformed the genre into a highly effective rhetorical instrument designed to intervene in topical debates outside the world of classical learning” (9). Several results follow from this suggestion: that English mythographies need to be read as “integrated wholes” (9), rather than just mined as quarries for particular allusions or motifs; that they need to be read in synchronic conversation with contemporaneous forms of English culture, rather than just as part of a diachronic tradition; and that they “exemplify how a specific model of myth reception might give impulses to the interpretation of English literature” beyond merely source identification (15).

After an introduction, Chapter 2 argues that Stephen Batman’s 1577 The Golden Booke employed mythography “as a rhetoric tool” against the heretical, Anabaptist movement, the Family of Love (56). Drawing on contradictory images of ancient gods as both “damnable idols” and “poetic allegory” with a positive social and moral function (56), Batman suggests an ambivalent, composite object of “Calvinist reading.” On this model, in order to be saved, the reader must “recognize and resist the dissembling fantasies of false religion” (65). The Golden Booke starts with the most obvious pagan idolatry, through subtler Papist mistakes, eventually culminating in the contemporaneous “imagined gods”—that is, the Family’s—“that had mastered the mimicry of true Christianity” (71). The chapter argues that this sequence of progressively more difficult tests required to discern true from false religion influenced Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Hartmann shows how the Bower of Bliss episode draws on Batman’s “historical model” for a way to use myth argumentatively in mythological poetry (91).

Chapter 3 links Abraham Fraunce’s Amintas Dale to the Sidney circle. While previous scholars have seen Fraunce’s mythography as a commentary on Ovid, Hartmann argues that the text is “half mythography and half mythological poetry” (97), because it fuses Fraunce’s fictional compositions honoring Philip Sidney’s memory to Fraunce’s early attempt at a Latin mythography. This composite context helps generate Fraunce’s Sidneian conception of mythopoesis, in which the poet creates, employs, or tailors a myth as a “suitable, fictional image” for a particular idea (104)—an account of myth that crucially joins mythography and the writing of poetry. Hartmann argues that the debt to Sidney helps to establish the importance of considering local English contexts over Continental, earlier mythography. Further, Fraunce actually “expands the metamorphic world of Ovid” (113), adding incidents, allegories, and flourishes, so that mythography becomes “poetically productive” (127).

Chapter 4 ties Francis Bacon’s mythographical work to his broader philosophical program. Against those who have read his mythography as a pragmatic concession to his audience, Hartmann argues that Bacon hoped to find “axioms of prima philosophia ” in what he called Greek “fables” (136). That is, he believed that myths encode abstract correspondences that allow for the transfer of knowledge from one subject-domain to another. While Bacon’s Italian source, Conti’s Mythologiae, revels in open-ended mythological polysemy, Bacon assigns each fable a “specific field of knowledge” (152), interpreting polysemy as reflecting the basic, structural correspondences between these fields. Bacon thus advances a philological and allegorical science of myth.

Chapter 5 argues that Henry Reynolds’s 1632 Mythomystes mediates between earlier, “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). Hartmann connects Reynolds to the circle of writers around Michael Drayton, a circle that emphasized “the poetic decline of the age” (167) and stressed that ancient poetry’s “allegorical,” “sacred” core” offered a path toward a contemporary literary revival (169, 168). This theory corresponds to a Neo-Platonic image of the “poet-prophet” as “blind to the world’s inferior pleasures,” whose divine fury ( divinus furor) allowed him to access a “vision of intellectual beauty [that] can only be attained by averting one’s eyes from worldly things” (172). But elsewhere in Mythomystes, Reynolds denies the ancient pagans “the divine dimension of the books of Moses” (180). Hartmann traces Reynolds’s equivocations on this point, considering but ultimately rejecting antecedents in the work of Pico della Mirandola. She argues Reynolds’s work “represents this larger cultural divide” between Neo-Platonic accounts of divine fury and Protestant mythographers concerned to police the boundaries between Christian revelation and pagan poetry (203).

Chapter 6 turns to Alexander Ross’s several contributions to mythography during the English Civil War. A committed Royalist and Laudian, Ross argued that “pagan stories” could “teach his contemporaries how to conduct their lives as believers in a society of Christians” (212). Rather surprisingly, he thought that the pagan use of ornaments, ritual, and pomp for false gods should inspire English Christians to do the same for their true God. Hartmann traces Ross’s debt to Augustine’s account of looting the Egyptian spoils of the classical heritage for Christianity. But she also shows how Ross departs from Augustine, particularly by embracing Roman civic religion as politically expedient regardless of its false content. Ross’s 1653 Pansebeia, or a View of All Religions in the World “suppresses an account of the origins of the pagan gods” which readers would have expected (227), because Ross is unconcerned with paganism’s truth. Rather, as an Augustan Royalist, he wants the ancients—specifically the Romans—“to function as religious examples to be imitated by Ross’s Christian contemporaries” (231). Ross stresses the hierarchical, orderly structures of Roman civic religion that connect the ritual cult, the central deity, and the monarch. Remarkably, Ross largely brackets the concerns of previous mythography with the supposed allegorical truth of pagan poetry. Rather, he offers an instrumental account of its political usefulness in controlling a simple populace. In short poems at the end of each mythographical entry, he encourages the reader to apply lessons learned from the myths to their contemporary, English context.

The sixteenth-century printing of Continental mythographies made possible Batman’s, Fraunce’s, Bacon’s, Reynolds’s, and Ross’s use of mythography to intervene in ongoing religious, political, and artistic debates. Against a scholarly consensus that these English mythographies contain no theory of myth, Hartmann argues that they implicitly advance ideas about the nature and meaning of myth. Scholars have been slow to recognize these ideas, because the authors she considers understood themselves to be employing mythography for practical, local purposes, rather than to be writing abstractly about the genre. The conclusion traces the rise of a newer form of mythography in the late seventeenth century, which was heavily influenced by French work, written for school and university students, and less concerned with immediate polemical contexts than with theory and education.

Overall, Hartmann has written a sharp, erudite book about an understudied genre. Moreover, she has shown the relevance of these texts for scholars with diverse interests, the implicit theorizing of myth that takes place underneath their surfaces, and their independence from the earlier Italian models which had overshadowed them. While it is difficult to criticize such a judicious work of scholarship, I would note that the argument is sometimes hard to follow. Certain tangents—a long excursus on the exact extent to which Reynolds knew Pico, for instance—do not ultimately seem necessary for the chapters in which they appear, and, as a result, it becomes unclear what the central focus of the chapter is. Also, Hartmann’s conceit of linking mythographic texts to other poetry has uneven results. While Drayton’s planned revival of English poetry usefully contextualizes Reynolds’s Neo-Platonism, it is less clear what Spenser is doing in the chapter on Batman: Hartmann’s reading of The Fairie Queene seems largely to agree with what previous scholars have written.

Still, Hartmann’s book makes an important contribution to scholarly arguments about religion and poetry in early modern England. In particular, much work on anti-poetic English discourse takes for granted oppositions between pagan and Christian poetry that closer attention to mythography complicates. English Mythography is an exemplary work of fine-grained, close textual scholarship which will interest readers across disciplinary boundaries.