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New Scholarship on Religion and Literature, 2000-2012 (November 2013): Early Modern Dissent

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein

Early Modern Dissent

The seventeenth century has proven especially fertile ground for the study of religion and literature, especially given the spread of dissenting texts, both in print and manuscript, and its significance for that century’s turbulent intersection of religion, politics, and culture.  Frequently revisiting the influential work of the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, scholars have paid close attention to print networks, publishing history, authorial self-construction, gender and dissent, and, of course, the relation between dissent and politics.  Nicholas McDowell’s The English Radical Imagination: Culture, Religion, and Revolution, 1630-1660 deconstructs the conventional oppositions between “high” (elite) and “low” (popular) culture in seventeenth-century radical prose, arguing that much radical prose emerges from a distinctly middle-class to elite background.  David Loewenstein’s Representing Revolution in Milton and His Contemporaries and Sharon Achinstein’s Literature and Dissent in Milton’s England locate Milton’s work in a strong tradition of radical religious and social critique by recuperating dissenting literature as literature, examining poetry, prophecy, sermons, hymns, theological treatises, and the like in both print and manuscript forms.

In Literature and Religious Culture in Seventeeth-Century England, Reid Barbour uses a narrower focus—the multifaceted meanings of the word “circumstance” in seventeenth-century religious discourse—to unpack how seventeenth-century Protestants assessed their social, political, and religious position in a time of extreme upheaval, both within and without the Church of England.  And Erica Longfellow’s Women and Religious Writing in Early Modern England uses case studies of five very different Protestant writers—ranging in politics and position from the Fifth Monarchist prophet Anna Trapnel to Lady Anne Southwell—to demonstrate that they appropriated the mystical marriage trope in order to authorize their religious visions, critique hierarchies of religion and class, and reimagine the spiritual significance of both masculinity (especially as it pertained to Christ) and femininity.