Oral Culture and Religious Identity

Phebe Jensen
Utah State University

Alison Shell’s Oral Culture and Catholicism in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2007) is a learned and original book that reflects the coming of age of post-Reformation Catholic studies. In the early 1990s, Eamon Duffy and Christopher Haigh demonstrated (from very different perspectives) that the Reformation did not proceed as quickly and straightforwardly as earlier generations of Whiggishly inclined historians had claimed.1 Though Protestantism was welcomed in some parts of the country, it was resisted in others; “progress” was piecemeal, and in some areas only ever partial; Catholic religious habits continued, practiced not only by recusants, but by others along the religious spectrum, including some conforming Protestants; and minority Catholic communities evolved and in some cases flourished in England into the seventeenth century. In response to this shift in our understanding of the Reformation, scholars have more recently sought to describe the nature of the English Catholic community, and to demonstrate the continued influence of Catholics and Catholicism on post-Reformation Protestant thought and culture. An especially important contribution to that body of work was Alison Shell’s first monograph, Catholicism and the English Literary Imagination (1999), which demonstrated the centrality of Catholic writers to the development of English literature in the Reformation period and beyond.2

Oral Culture and Catholicism breaks new ground in Catholic scholarship by demonstrating the special relationship between oral culture and early modern Catholicism. But the book should also be of broader interest to scholars working outside that relatively narrow field. Though the primary object of study here is Catholicism’s links to orality, by analyzing Catholic oral culture in the larger context of early modern religious culture, the book demonstrates what the best recent scholarship has shown: that studies of Catholicism also illuminate mainstream English Protestant culture. Indeed it is difficult to create an accurate picture of the latter, without considering the former. Shell’s book ultimately tells us almost as much about Protestantism as it does about Catholicism, as well as a great deal about orality and literacy, popular culture, and the topics that make up the book’s four central chapters: sacrilege narratives and the Gothic; folk beliefs and the supernatural; orality and religious controversy; and martyrs and confessorship. Though each of these studies begins in the sixteenth century, each analysis is extended to its logical chronological endpoint—whether that is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in chapter 1, Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock in chapter 2, or John Dryden’s The Hind and the Panther in the conclusion—making the book relevant for eighteenth century as well as Reformation scholars.

The book’s main goal is to demonstrate “the many ways in which oral transmission and dissemination had an impact on the post-Reformation English Catholic experience” (149), though it also (especially in the second and third chapters) explores the related claim that Protestants negatively associated Catholicism with oral culture, and oral culture with theological error. Although Catholics fought against this characterization, it was both partially true and briefly embraced explicitly (as Shell demonstrates in an intriguing conclusion) at the end of the seventeenth century, when the Brownloists argued for the superiority of Catholic “tradition” and the “rule of faith” (152) over the text-based claims of the Protestant sola scriptura.

Chapter 1, “Abbey Ruins, Sacrilege Narratives and the Gothic Imagination,” demonstrates the power and longevity of the belief, accepted by many Protestants as well as Catholics, that families who benefited materially from the Dissolution were punished by God over subsequent generations. Shell traces this “sacrilege narrative” (23) from the seizure of church property at the Reformation, through Sir Henry Spelman’s seventeenth-century compilation, The History and Fate of Sacrilege,to Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, to stories surrounding the ruins of Netley Abbey in Hampshire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Arguing that earlier denominational tensions were in a sense embedded in the genre of the Gothic, Shell reveals these tensions in subtle readings of material—church debates, emblems, and letters, in addition to literary works—that often defies easy devotional categorization. Spelman, for example, was a Protestant who believed his own family was being punished for sacrilegious behavior at the Reformation. Andrew Marvell’s Upon Appleton House predictably defends the ouster of the Catholic nuns from that property, but although Walpole was blatantly anti-Catholic in his personal life, his treatment of the sacrilege narrative reveals, Shell argues, a “real ambivalence toward Catholicism” (33). Though most of the material analyzed in this chapter is, inevitably, printed, Shell’s interest is in the underlying “orally transmitted anecdote[s] concerning the supernatural, especially from those stories attached to ruined abbeys, martyrs’ relics, and other highly visible signs of Reformation violence” (24). The methodology here, as often in later chapters, is to tease out the imprint of oral culture through close readings that pay attention to the representation of speech and other signs of orality, practiced with a sophisticated sense that, as recent scholars of early modern orality have concurred, the oral was not always prior to the published, but rather (in Adam Fox’s words), ideas could “migrate promiscuously” between the three mediums of manuscript, print, and oral transmission (17).3

Chapter 2, “Anti-popery and the Supernatural,” takes a different approach to orality, as it demonstrates how Protestant culture successfully identified “superstitious” folk beliefs with Catholicism. Here the orality of the material in question is more self-evident: Shell analyzes spells, songs, a “prophylactic rhyme,” and other material that is explicitly defined as spoken language when preserved in Catholic, anti-Catholic, and antiquarian works. An especially fascinating section of this chapter traces the way that the names of plants, herbs, and flowers that recalled medieval folk beliefs were the target of Protestant derision and, especially during the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, reform. This section of Shell’s argument is particularly suggestive in illustrating the interchange of folk traditions, songs and ballads, and print within an evolving religious and scientific intellectual context. The chapter ends with a brief but compelling comparison of Pope’s mocking representation of fairies in The Rape of the Lock,and that Catholic writer’s more “rueful . . . acknowledgement” in a private letter of the customary identification of Catholics with superstition (80).

Whereas the second chapter is primarily concerned with attacks on the oral culture of Catholicism, the final two focus more on defining that culture from the inside. Chapter 3, “Answering Back: Orality and Controversy,” argues that there was “a Catholic oral challenge to the religious status quo in Protestant England, manifesting itself through a number of media, accessible to those at many social levels, and acting as a supple and evasive means of popularising dissident ideas” (82). This claim is supported in a wide-ranging analysis of Catholic libels and ballads (some printed but many from manuscript) that demonstrates that, although the ballads often replicated the topics of the prose controversy, the oral versions stressed “the interface between mnemonics and live theological argument, and was often intended to provide its users with portable points for use in oral debate” (83). The chapter provides a somewhat discursive overview of different elements in Catholic balladry, touching on conservative Catholic ballad laments for the lost past; the ballad treatments of Cardinal Allen’s Articles; the “sweetening” effect of verse on polemic; Catholic libels; and occasional Catholic verse. The discussion of one major topic of Catholic ballads, martyrdom, is deferred until chapter 4, “Martyrs and Confessors in Oral Culture.” Here Shell makes a major contribution to a particularly vibrant field by recontextualizing Catholic martyr ballads within a larger oral culture, one that was simultaneously remembering the martyrs in different genres, often for the purposes of confessorship, through “psalm-singing and motets . . . rebuses, punning on names, the erection of architectural features and the exploitation of local memories” (115). As in earlier chapters, Shell takes her analysis to its chronological endpoint by exploring the reputation of the Popish Plot martyr Nicholas Postgate in local lore well into the nineteenth century, and (in an analysis that brings the book back to the Gothic, the subject of the first chapter) the stories that were told about the skull of Wardley Hall, Lancashire (which allegedly belonged to the Jesuit Ambrose Barlowe) from its discovery in 1745 up to the present day.

Oral Culture and Catholicism refuses simple definitions of any of its key terms. It works with a complex understanding of the relationship between orality and the written or printed language which records and reiterates, but also is itself recirculated, in oral traditions; it remains sensitive to the blurring of denominational demarcations; it defies traditional chronological barriers; and in an important subtext that runs through all four chapters, it explores the operation of class and educational status in “popular culture,” refusing any simplistic identification of the popular with the oral. The sheer intellectual and documentary richness of this book, and its commitment to exploring its subject from a range of different perspectives, can mitigate against clear linear arguments within the chapters, but what is created here is much more valuable: an aggregate sense of the complex devotional resonances of early modern England. Scholars of early modern Catholicism have labored to make the shadowy world of English recusancy visible; Oral Culture helps to make it audible as well, and in the process, opens up new areas for subsequent scholarship on religious and popular culture in post-Reformation England.


1.   See Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c.1400–c.1580 (New Haven, 1992); and Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors (Oxford, 1993), as well as his earlier Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire (Cambridge, 1975).

2.   Alison Shell, Catholicism, Controversy and the English Literary Imagination, 1558–1660 (Cambridge, 1999). For a more thorough overview of recent Catholic historiography, see Ethan Shagan, “Introduction: English Catholic History in Context,” Catholics and the “Protestant” Nation: Religious Politics and Identity in Early Modern England, ed. Shagan(Manchester, 2005), 1–21

3.   Shell is quoting from Adam Fox, Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500–1700 (Oxford, 2000). See also D. R. Woolf, The Social Circulation of the Past (Oxford, 2003), and Bruce R. Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England (Chicago, 1999).