John Knox: Reformation Rhetoric and the Traditions of Scots Prose, 1490-1570.
Oxford: Peter Lang, 2004. 356 pp. index. append. gloss. bibl. $66.95. ISBN: 3-03910-138-2.
Father to the Scottish Reformation and the Church of Scotland; Catholic priest until his conversion in 1545; French galley slave for eighteen months after the battle for St. Andrews Castle, an experience that permanently damaged his health; friend to John Calvin; prolific author of religious treatises, including co-authorship of the First Book of Discipline, the constitution of the new Scottish Church, The Historie of the Reformation, a stunning example of sixteenth-century vernacular Scots, a treatise On Predestination (1560), and the infamous, misogynistic pamphlet The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558) in which he wrote "how abominable before God is the empire or rule of a wicked woman," a treatise that he was to half-heartedly recant in a letter to Elizabeth I; minister of the Church of St. Giles in Edinburgh until his death in 1572; incendiary orator and tireless propagandist--John Knox's role in the religious struggles of sixteenth-century Europe as a controversialist and gadfly was perhaps only matched by his prodigious output of writings.
Kenneth D. Farrow's study makes a helpful contribution to the growing literature on Reformation Scotland that attends to the literariness of the politico-religious texts generated during the period. Like so many learned Scots, including George Buchanan and his student James VI, Knox's role in the religious controversies of the period has deflected attention from the nature and scope of his writings, a fact remedied in Farrow's study. Farrow notes the paucity of literary critical work on Knox, generally available in omnibus volumes that address the period, such as J. M. Ross's Scottish History and Literature to the Period of the Reformation, T. F. Henderson's late nineteenth-century Scottish Vernacular Literature: A Succinct History, and the more recent Scottish Literature (2002). Dogged by critical negligence and bias, including stereotypes that figure him as an anglicizer, Knox has never quite had the due he deserves for his writings and, as Farrow argues, disciplinary boundaries and restrictions have led to the result that "vast tracts of socially important prose [by Knox] are still not as well known to a cultured audience as they should be" (10).
Focusing on Reformation rhetorical strategies and Scots prose, Farrow's study performs a number of useful scholarly reclamations. First, Farrow sets aside, after an admirably succinct discussion, the issue of Knox's putative anglicisms, arguing for nuanced possibilities regarding the extent to which Knox's writings were influenced by his knowledge of Scots. The conclusion, "to say he wrote English, and therefore falls outside the domain of Scottish literary study, is an assertion that does not hold much water" (23). Second, Farrow addresses head-on the issue of the genre of Knox's writings, arguing for their "occasional and ad hoc" nature (25) and the general difficulty in ascribing reductive taxonomies to such writings. Basing his generic breakdown on David Laing's work, mutatis mutandi, Farrow argues for four divisions to Knox's literary output: admonitory public epistles, private letters, devotional works (modified by Farrow to controversial and theological works), and Knox's magnum opus, The Historie of the Reformation (1558-71), in which Knox advocates for history as theology and theology as history (27), theology being "the cosmic battleground which manifests God's sovereignty and lordship" and Knox's great work being an anatomy of Knox's direct experience of this conceit.
Beginning with an overview of pre-Knoxian prose, then, Farrow's book undertakes a careful examination of Knox's writings based on these four divisions. Farrow traces the development of Knox's rhetorical skills via the admonitory prose, whose critical dismissal for its predictability and similitude is overturned by Farrow's close readings. The largely unexplored personal correspondence of Knox also gets considerable attention, Farrow concluding that "many of them are minor literary masterpieces in their own right, and abiding testimony to Knox's skill, patience, shrewdness, compassion and candour" (151). The intertextual importance of the private letters in shaping materials that found their way into The Historie is perhaps Farrow's most interesting conclusion, and the book's close attention to these forgone texts is a welcome remedy to lacunae in Knoxian scholarship overall.
Disputatious theological works, in all their variants--what many might consider to be a dull genre with little gold for all the logorrheic dross--get equally thoughtful attention from Farrow. The sheer variety of disputation--not to mention the incredible generic openendedness of the form, including "revisions, translations, sermons, disputations, expositions, vindications, and statements concerning ecclesiastical procedure" (188)--are all shown to be active in literarily sophisticated ways. Crucial to Knox's ethos is the centrality of religious argument as opposed to the "trifeling questionis" of politics or economics (189)--itself an interesting historic reversal that bucks current critical proclivities. Finally, Farrow attends to the literary qualities of The Historie, far and away Knox's most influential work. Knoxian rhetorical technique reaches its zenith in this work, not only for its incisive use of forensic rhetorical strategies but also for its embedded dramatic narratives, characterized by Farrow as "highly purposive and brilliantly effective" (319). Farrow argues for The Historie's being the greatest piece of Scottish prose from its own time and one of the "greatest works of Scottish prose in the whole of Scottish literature" (320).
Where the book ends is perhaps where its most apparent failure gets marked. Rather than concluding with an appeal to greatness, which then serves the embedded narrative of authorial self-interest, this author, at least, would have been happier to see an intensification of attention to the rhetorical depth in Knox's writings as justification enough for reclaiming Knox's stature. Which is to say that Farrow does an admirable job of translating his passion for Knoxian prose into argument, but that argument remains to be further explored and expanded through attention to the rhetorical close reading strategies that unlock the signifying power of Knox's historical distance and elusive cultural formation as troped in his vast writings.
University of Guelph
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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