Since at least 9/11, scholars of the Renaissance and Reformation have drawn connections between the martyrological obsessions of the period we study and the one in which we now live. In fact, at this point, I rarely think about the possible similarities between the scaffold speeches of Marian martyrs or Elizabethan recusants, on the one hand, and jihadi videos on the other--or between Catholic exhortations to martyrdom during the Oath of Allegiance controversy and ISIS's recruitment materials. If this kind of grisly, exculpatory self-fashioning ever seemed anomalous to me, it hasn't for a long time.
But while researching at the Folger over spring break I came across a bit of religious polemic that evoked a scenario that did feel new to me, in an Early Modern context--but rather more familiar in our own. And that's a parent's fear that his child has come under the sway of a foreign religious fanatic.
John Niccols Pilgrimage (1581) opens as a dialogue between a father and his grown son, the latter languishing in an ecstasy of melancholy. The son, Trisander, declares that nothing can ease his grief but his father's permission to go abroad "for three or foure yeares space." His father is instantly alarmed, the more so by Trisander's vague reasons for his dolor. He has, he says, "a desire. . . to goe to strange Countries, to veiw those things which are not to be seene" in England, and to study foreign languages. His father replies that Trisander doesn't need to go abroad--he can learn languages at home! In fact, he'll hire private tutors for him! Indeed, whatever Trisander wants, his doting dad promises to give him: leisure to hunt and hawk? Done!
But Trisander demurs, describing the beauties of Italy and his longing to see that country in person. His father is even more suspicious: "You talke of Italie. . . as though you had bin there: but in Italie you were never... tell me therfore whom thou harde to prase Italie so much?" After Trisander identifies the man, his father keeps pressing him: was it just the one gentleman Trisander spoke to. . . ? And does Trisander happen to know his religion. . . ?
But at just the point where it seems that his father has identified the real reason behind Trisander's request, the work lurches into another mode. Trisander declares that the gentleman in question has professed his belief that the Pope is the antichrist, that salvation comes not by works, and that all of religion is contained in the scriptures. His father, now as satisfied as before he was suspicious, bestows "three hundreth pounds in gold" upon Trisander, swings into a long, Polonius-like lecture on how his son may best comport himself overseas, and hands him off to his mother. The rest of the work moves from dialogue to dialogue as Trisander bids his family adieu and ships out for the Continent; its chief purpose seems to be peddling the most shopworn of anti-Catholic polemic.
Still, for a moment there, at the beginning, the dialogue felt fresh and unpredictable. And for all its inelegance and lack of nuance--Nicholls's writing is as thudding as his religious politics--the opening scenario had, if not the ring of truth, then at least the ring of plausibility. If the confrontation between father and son weren't drawing upon real contemporary fears and anxieties, the rest of the polemic wouldn't work.
And that, I suppose, is why I read early modern prose: for the window it provides onto daily life and the lived experience of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It's not that nonfictional prose is a transparent medium or that it should be taken at face value (did early modern Protestants really believe that all priests were having sex either with each other or with the nuns they confessed? probably no more than we today believe our lawyer jokes), but it still gives us a rare kind of access to the culture.
Reading unfamiliar genres and encountering debates and topical references that may be half or even entirely obscure is to feel both the closeness and the irreducible strangeness of the past: on the one hand, here it is! a pamphlet that someone paid money for, held in his hand, maybe read aloud. On the other, what did it mean to him? Why did he buy it? And what the hell is it even about? High literature is easier to read, not least because it trails after it centuries of familiarization, but it lacks the same intimacy, that sense of being there in the moment with all its unknowns.
Because it's not really historical information that I want, even when I can get it. The work's introduction makes clear that it was written from the Tower and is (ostensibly) based on Nicholls's own experiences in the English Seminary at Rome, and the DNB fills out the portrait somewhat. But the work isn't better or more believable if you know that Nicholls traveled to Rome and "voluntarily surrendered himself to the Inquisition" at age twenty-two or twenty-three, or that he was a serial apostate. What I want--or rather, what I didn't know that I wanted until I had it--is the sense that parents, or some parents, worried over their childrens' possible apostacy, and what they were reading and who they were hanging out with, and whether they were more or less devout than their elders.
Possibly this is something I could have learned from a work of historiography. But it wouldn't have been as real, somehow, as encountering that paranoia first-hand, in this ephemeral, intemperate, and yet still somehow reticent text.