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Reid Barbour. Literature and Religious Culture in Seventeenth-Century England.

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. viii + 282 pp. index. $60. ISBN: 0-521-00664-3.

Reid Barbour's scholarly and engaging study of Caroline religious culture merits attention from historians and literary critics of the period. Barbour argues convincingly that a wide variety of mid-seventeenth-century authors attempted to define the Caroline church's identity and to defend its Protestant orthodoxy against the outside pressures of nonconformists and Catholics. In the process, these writers "took stock of what they tend to call the 'circumstances' of their faith," specifically, the "historical, imaginative, ritualistic, social, epistemological, and natural conditions in which English Protestantism tends to lapse, struggle, and thrive" (1). Although other scholars of the period have previously explored the role of the church and the shape of Caroline religious experience, they have tended to overlook or downplay the "inquisitive complexity of Caroline religious discourse" (5). Barbour, in contrast, demonstrates the sheer breadth and richness of the period's religious stocktaking, and he shows how a surprising array of writers were committed to probing the circumstances that comprised and sometimes compromised the Caroline religious experience.

Chapters 1 and 2 discuss the reactions of Caroline Protestants to the almost mythic heroism of the earlier Elizabethan church and their attempts to fashion "richly inventive revisions of the heroic pomp and circumstance of faith" (21). Barbour chooses three diverse cultural sites for showing these reassessments of religious heroism: the court of Charles I, the Little Gidding home of the Ferrar family, and Great Tew, the Oxfordshire intellectual community presided over by Lucius Cary, second Viscount of Falkland. Barbour shows how each one of these communities attempted to define for itself what constituted heroism. Charles, for example, sought to present himself and his court as a new synthesis of courtly and religious heroism, one which was highly ornamental and ceremonial. The question of heroism was a similarly absorbing concern for the Ferrar family, but at Little Gidding it centered instead "on the problem of deciding just what holy enterprises can and should be accomplished in this world" (38). At Lord Falkland's Great Tew, the theological studies of Falkland, Chillingworth, and others built upon the Gidding conception of a quiet, heroic faith to form "a general theory of valiant skepticism" (55).

In chapters 3, 4, and 5, Barbour turns to two other points of theological contention during the period: "fancy" and the biblical injunction not to respect "persons" when assessing others. Both concepts were central to the church's ongoing process of self-definition. The complex and wide-ranging Caroline debate over "fancy" was, in essence, an exploration of "the assets and liabilities of imagination in worship" (91), and Barbour carefully shows how this debate played out in a variety of arenas, including Land's dream diaries, Andrewes' sermons, and Shirley's masques. Chapters 4 and 5 present a detailed and informative study of how Caroline writers negotiated the conflict between regard for decorum, rank, and individual achievement and the biblical reminder that God ignores such categories. Chapter 6 is particularly effective at showing how both dramatists and preachers "were bound up in the search for the meaning of God's disregard for persons" (163), and Barbour incorporates the plays of Ford and Brome, contemporary anti-theatrical controversies, and the sermons of Donne.

In the final two chapters, Barbour argues that many Caroline scientific texts were equally implicated in the period's widespread religious stocktaking. He turns first to seventeenth-century natural philosophers--Bacon, Fludd, Harvey, and Browne--to show that for these Caroline thinkers a "right understanding of nature" could resolve the dilemmas inherent in the mid-seventeenth-century Protestant experience (175). He then discusses how these emerging views prompted other writers--Edward Herbert, Gataker, Hakewill, and Mede--to attempt their own syntheses of nature and church.

One of the most appealing aspects of this book is the breadth and inclusiveness of the "religious culture" it surveys, a culture which includes not only the overtly pious dialogues of the Ferrar family but also the occult writings of Fludd. This breadth, however, can make the book feel, at times, too sprawling. For example, Barbour's massive sections on heroism, questions of "persons," and natural philosophy tend to float apart although he makes concerted efforts to knit them together. Given, however, that Barbour's goal is to show the sheer scope and range of Caroline religious stocktaking, the disparate feel of the chapters may be an inevitable result of his ambitious thesis. Barbour's conclusion works well to pull his different discussions together, for he demonstrates that the self-assessments of English Protestants prompted counterattacks from New England separatists and European papists. This closing view from outside the Church of England gives a welcome retrospective unity to the various discussions and is a fitting end to a fine work of scholarship.


University of Alabama, Birmingham
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Author:Chapman, Alison A.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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