Printed Images in Early Modern Britain

Cover of Printed Images in Early Modern BritainI promised I would get back to Michael Hunter‘s (ed.) Printed Images in Early Modern Britain: Essays in Interpretation (Ashgate, 2010). I sat down with it last evening and read the introduction and first five chapters, which together form the section ‘Printed images and the Reformation.’

According to Michael Hunter’s introduction, printed images have until recently been rather neglected. Engravings were mainly studied from an art-historical perspectives, woodcuts as an emanation of popular culture. A more socio-cultural approach was introduced in the 1980s. More recently, a number of studies has broken down the technical and disciplinary boundaries, and has started to analyse the settings from which printed images originated to provide a deeper understanding of the role of printed images in the cultural history of early modern Britain. Hunter mentions works such as Joseph Monteyne’s The Printed Image in Early Modern London; Helen Pierce’s Unseemly Pictures; and Malcolm Jones’s The Print in Early Modern England. The sections in the book are similarly concerned with the ways in which images relate to cultural history. They each connect printed images to particular cultural-historical context, such as science and cartography or politics. Hunter hopes that historians will become more adept at including images in their analyses of early modern culture, inspired by this volume but also by the increasing availability of these images online — as for example in bpi1700.

Printed images and the Reformation

This section of the book looks at images in the religious context of the Reformation. The first two chapters are tightly connected and cross-reference each other when relevant – a sign of thorough editing. Margaret Ashton examines the controversies surrounding the representation of God and Christ on title pages from the early Reformation to the 1640s. She shows how depictions of God as a bearded old man in the clouds on title pages of bibles, as below on The Great Bible of 1539, were replaced by the use of the tetragrammaton YHWH, a new formula that had appeared in Anabaptist circles on the Continent in 1529. The Coverdale Bible (1535) was the earliest book to use the symbol in England.

God on the title page of the Great Bible of 1539

God on the title page of the Great Bible of 1539

tetragrammaton on the title page of the Coverdale bible

Tetragrammaton on the title page of the Coverdale bible

In Ashton’s words, “Cranmer and Cromwell between them shared quite enough knowledge of Continental developments to have sneaked a tetragrammaton into the 1535 Bible – or to have been ready to endorse its presence. Henry [VIII], given his proclivities, would certainly not have been delighted” (27). Based on her analysis of representations of God in religious prints, Ashton is also able to unravel what Archbishop Laud meant at his trial when he said in his defence that the Book of Martyrs contained ‘as dangerous pictures as have been charged upon me, or any my chapel windows’. According to Ashton, Laud possibly referred specifically to this representation of a bearded Christ on the title page of a 1641 reissue of the decidedly Protestant Acts and Monuments by John Foxe:

Title page of the 1641 edition of Foxe's Acts and Monuments

Title page of the 1641 edition of Foxe's Acts and Monuments. From EEBO.

Why, asked Laud, should he be accused of harboring Popish stained windows if the very title page of as Protestant a publication as Foxe’s Acts and Monuments is adorned with such an anthropomorphous Christ?

In the next chapter, Richard L. Williams looks at the Christian prayers and meditations printed by John Day in 1569. Day was strongly committed to Protestantism – famously printing John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments in 1563 – and yet the illustrations in this Protestant book of prayers find their source in a Pre-Reformation book of hours. One of the borders contains a Pietà:

Pietà in Day's Christian Prayers and Meditations (1569), sig eiir. From EEBO.

Pietà in Day's Christian Prayers and Meditations (1569), sig eiir. From EEBO.

In the 1578 edition of the book by his son Richard Day, the image of the Pietà has been removed from the border, and has been replaced by an image of the Entombment of Christ. Williams uses this image and representations of God as anthropomorphous and as tetragrammaton in these two editions as a way into practices of censorship and self-censorship in the context of the Reformation (his introduction provides a lucid overview of recent debates in the study of early modern censorship) . He also views the Pietà in this Protestant collection of prayers as a warning for those who study religious prints:

One of the problems affecting the discussion of religious imagery in post-Reformation England is that modern scholars are apt to treat the wide time frame of ‘early modern England’ as a coherent whole. Attitudes expressed by certain Protestants in the 1630s or 1640s, for instance, might be cited as evidence of attitudes held by Protestants in the 1560s. Thus sharply defined Protestant identities encountered in the seventeenty century are superimposed anachronistically and misleadingly on earlier generations of the sixteenth century. […] For instance, it is possible to argue that the attitude of [John] Day and his customers to images of the Pietà and God the Father had changed even within the short time that separated the publication of his 1569 book and that of 1578. (59)

The next chapter further nuances the idea of Protestant iconoclasm. Tara Hamling writes about decorative art in Protestant homes of the gentry and the middle classes. She argues that these works of art demonstrate that traditional religious iconography did not disappear after the Reformation, but remained highly visible in this domestic context, even in the homes of families who can be identified as ‘moderate Puritans.’ Hamling notes that it is important to keep in mind that Protestant attitudes to religious images were not as straightforward as one might think: the location of the image was an important factor. Also, decorative art in the home often based on Protestant prayer books, such as the Christian prayers and meditations (1569) also discussed by Williams in the previous chapter. She writes that:

It is a common research strategy to search for and locate borrowings from printed sources in decorative art. Often, however, the use of imagery in print as a template for pictorial embellishments in other crafts is treated only in terms of working practice and method. This neglects issues surrounding the motivations for, and implications of, the borrowing in relation to the ideology of the patron and the belief systems of the intended audience. (71)

Hamling therefore turns to the function of this religious imagery in the house. Basing herself both on material evidence in the historic houses and on textual clues in Protestant religious manuals she argues that that the decorations were used as a setting for collective religious observance such as household prayers, Bible reading and the singing of psalms, as well as providing a guide to personal meditation.

In the final chapter of the section on printed images and the Reformation, Alexandra Walsham looks at antiquarian images of abbeys and churches ruined after the Dissolution of the Monasteries or during the Civil Wars. These depictions of ruins are usually seen as the forerunners of Romanticism and the picturesque tradition, but Walsham argues that they offer valuable insight into the cultural history of the long Reformation. Whereas antiquarians were at first reluctant to include visual representations of the buildings they described, in the early seventeenth-century this started to change under the influence of ‘a distinct mellowing of Protestant opinion about the pre-Refomation church.’ Especially in circles of the high church, the destruction of the Reformation and the threat of further damage to religious buildings in the 1630s and 40s led to a desire to record these images on paper. Walsham looks especially at Roger Dodsworth and William Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum, which was looked at with suspicion by those who feared it sought to herald a return to Catholicism. Walsham argues, however, that there was no denominational monopoly on religious antiquarianism. They could simply be purchased to remind their owners of the piety and charity of their forebears, for example. ‘They could simultaneously be a focus of religious reverence and historical artefacts arousing the intellectual and cultural curiosity of those who repudiated their veneration’ (104).

What I enjoyed about the first section in the book is the way it nuances ideas about Protestantism and iconoclasm by exploring topics such as the way subtle details in prints can have great religious and political resonance. I also learned about the material aspects of printed images: the practical aspects of the ways in which images found their way into a printed text; the stage at which they were inserted into a print run, and issues of censorship and self-censorship. I will certainly be reading more of this book, particularly the section on printed images and politics with contributions by Malcolm Jones, Alastair Bellany, Helen Pierce and Justin Champion.


3 thoughts on “Printed Images in Early Modern Britain

  1. Pingback: Early Modern Notes » Carnivalesque 66

  2. I was lucky enough to be taught by Michael and had the pleasure of writing an end-of-term essay for him on printed images during the English Civil Wars. It was one of the essays that I enjoyed most during my Masters, without a doubt! What I think is particularly interesting is that the interdisciplinary studies so common to histories of the book have barely started with the history of the early modern printed image – particularly when it comes to their reception. Helen Pierce’s Unseemly Pictures (which is fab) is a good start but even there I feel it is written in terms of an idealised viewer/reader rather than real ones. Do viewers come out much in the essays in this book?

    Anyway thank you for a really helpful review; this will definitely be high on my Christmas list.

  3. Hi NIck,
    Thanks for your response, and sorry to leave it unanswered for such a long time. At least Christmas has not yet come and gone, so it might still be useful to answer your question about attention to viewers in the book. I read all but the last section on late-seventeenth-century print culture, and so far as I know, Printed Images doesn’t contain a chapter on a particular viewer’s reception of images, in the way Kevin Sharpe studied the reading habits of Sir William Drake, for example. It refers to general viewers or readers (“an early modern viewer,” p. 114, “the reader” p. 135).

    It does make arguments about the ideas about viewing images among certain social groups, such as Puritans or natural philosophers. Also, it reconstructs viewer’s reception on the basis of the evidence of the printed images themselves and the way they were appropriated in other images/texts/performances – when Katherine Acheson states, for example, that scientific illustrations were used as sources for decorative arts – but that is perhaps not what you mean.

    There is a concrete example of reader reception in a Protestant reader who has crossed out the words “Whosoever devoutly beholdeth these armys off cristis passyon hath […] yearis off pardon” underneath an image of Christ’s passion (49) – a bit like your recent Cromwell post. Also, Helen Pierce’s chapter on caricatures of Robert L’Estrange uses manuscript annotations to confirm her identification of persons depicted in the image, and she looks briefly at reactions to the satirical images, such as the Whig polemicist Thomas Hunt’s comments.

    I hope this answers your question and makes up for the long wait a bit!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s