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Trinket, Idol, Fetish: Some Notes on Iconoclasm and the Language of Materiality in Reformation England.

Ha, ha, what a fool Honesty is? And Trust, his sworn brother, a very simple gentleman! I have sold all my trumpery; not a counterfeit stone, not a ribbon, glass, pomander, brooch, table book, ballad, knife, tape, glove, shoe tie, bracelet, horn ring, to keep my pack from fasting. They throng who should buy first, as if my trinkets had been hallowed, and brought a benediction to the buyer.

--William Shakespeare The Winter's Tale 4.4.598-605

IN THE WINTER'S TALE, AUTOLYCUS, Shakespeare's roguish peddler, gloats over his ability to pass off his shabby merchandise, his trinkets and trumpery, to an undiscriminating public. In doing so, he associates the fervor of his naive consumers with those who throng after all things hallowed, those who believe in the power of the sacred object to bring a benediction to the godly buyer. That is, he associates his credulous patrons with Catholics. This association is suggested not only by his explicit reference to hallowed objects and bought benedictions, but is implicitly present in the words "trinket" and "trumpery." As David Kaula argues, "the terminology Autolycus applies to his wares belongs to the verbal arsenal of anti-Catholic polemical writing in Reformation England. Again and again such words as "trumpery" and "trinkets" appear in the Protestant diatribes against what were considered the mercenary and idolatrous practices of selling indulgences, crucifixes, rosaries, medals, candles and other devotional objects."(1) The word "trinket" is of particular interest because its etymology is obscure; the word seems to enter the English language in the 1530s when, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, three different meanings of the term were theoretically operative: "a tool, implement, or tackle of an occupation"; "a small ornament or fancy article"; and "decorations of worship" or "religious rites, ceremonies, beliefs, etc. which the speaker thinks vain or trivial."(2) In practice, the OED's third definition relating to "vain or trivial decorations of worship" tends to color other uses of the word. Indeed, many of the early uses of the term denigrate women and Catholics as people who not only misunderstand the value of objects but who might also have powerful and unnatural relations to them.

The significance of the fact that "trinket" seems to have entered the language, or, at least, become more fashionable, during the decade of the Henrician Reformation is strikingly apparent when we turn to the OED's first entry under the "vain or trivial decorations of worship" rubric. In a 1538 letter to Richard Rich, Dr. John London recounts some of his iconoclastic efforts in the Henrician dissolution of the monasteries: "I have pullyd down the image of your lady at Caversham, with all trynkettes abowt the same, as schrowdes, candels, images of wexe, crowches, and brochys, and have thorowly defacyd that chapell."(3) Hugh Hilarie provides a similar list of papist objects in his 1554 anti-Catholic poem, The Resurrection of the Masse: The Masse Speaketh, when he denounces "Aultare clothes, corporasses and cruettes / Copes, vestementes, albes, boke, bell and chalice / Candelstickes, paxe, and suche other trynckettes."(4) The word "trinket" recasts both London's peculiar inventory and Hilarie's motley collection as catalogues of Catholic folly. Unlike more traditional forms of iconoclastic discourse such as the Elizabethan Church's authorized "Homilie against perill of idolatrie," which granted enormous power to the treacherous material object, the reformed language of "trinkets" worked to demystify the material dimensions of religion by rendering it trivial.(5)

No English reformed work attempts to denigrate the "idolatrous" materialism of the papists more than John Foxe's Acts and Monuments. At the beginning of the ninth book, "containing the Actes and thinges done in the Reigne of King Edward the sixt," Foxe includes a woodcut that portrays "The Papistes packing away their Paltry."(6) Depicting the removal of statues, crosses, mitres, elaborate folios, and, of course, Catholics from England, this woodcut represents a graphic version of the iconoclastic lists of London and Hilarie. The woodcut portrays the Catholics loading themselves and their "paltry" onto a ship of fools and trifling baubles ("The Ship of the Romish church") headed for foreign shores, with the decree--"Ship ouer your trinkets & be packing you papists." The text which the woodcut purports to illustrate, however, does not discuss Catholic trinkets and papist paltry. Rather, it celebrates the ascension of Edward VI, declaring him the second coming of the biblical boy-king and revered iconoclast, Josias. The implication is that just as Josias clashed with Old Testament idolaters so his antitype Edward would contend with the superstitious and idolatrous papists. Here, the papist trinkets of the woodcut seem both to help link Edward to an Old Testament iconoclasm and to suggest that there is some qualitative difference between the dark majesty of Old Testament idolatry and the triviality of papist baubles.

The term trinket could also be extended outward from lists and images of pernicious material objects to include any manifestation of religious materialism. In one of his Sixe Sermons Henry Smith associates the term "trinket" with all the "inventions" of Catholic doctrine and ritual: "then they inuented Purgatory, Masses, Prayers for the dead, and then all their trinkets."(7) Similarly, Foxe associates trinkets with the idolatrous innovations of the Catholic Mass itself. In a section of Acts and Monuments mocking the elaborate ceremony of the Mass, the running header is "The popes trinkets with the Canon of the Masse described" (1275-77). Having reproduced and ridiculed the Catholic Salisbury Use, and recounted a reformed history of "how and by whom this popish or rather apish Masse became so clamperde and patched togither" (1274), Foxe turns his attention to "such trinkettes as were to the foresaide Masse appertaining or circumstant, first, the linnen albes and Corporasses" (1276). Foxe then mockingly provides an index of frivolous objects and absurd innovations. As Foxe's example makes clear, terms like "trinket" helped the reformers cast their indictment of religious materialism as satire. If the established discourse of iconoclasm described the perils of the idolatrous object, the language of "trinkets" dismissed the material dimension of religion as farce. If iconoclasm struggled with the fundamental problems of representation and materiality that have shadowed Christianity throughout its history, the "common sense" language of trinkets suggested that the ridiculous innovations of Catholics were both easily perceived and easily "sent packing." Indeed, one could argue that by helping Reformers rethink Christian iconoclasm as a demystifying discourse, "trinket" and related terms anticipate, or lay the groundwork for, the modern discourse of fetishism.

"Fetish," of course, is modernity's preferred term to describe a perceived improper relation to objects. In a recent series of important essays, William Pietz has produced a genealogy of the fetish,(8) tracing the modern understanding of the word to the seventeenth-century voyage narratives of Protestant merchants trading on the African coast. I am attempting here to supplement Pietz's genealogy of the fetish by taking seriously his observation that in the early seventeenth century the understanding of the fetish was set within the "theoretical frame ... of Protestant Christianity's iconoclastic repudiation of any material, earthly agency."(9) What is traditionally understood as iconoclasm broadly defined--the violent attack on the material dimension of religion--and the discourse decrying fetishism are distinguished by the relative power each discourse imputes to the material object. Traditional iconoclasm grants the idolatrous object an extraordinary power. As Ann Kibbey argues in a study of "Iconoclastic Materialism," "what historians and critics have misconstrued as a categorical opposition to images was actually a devoted, if negative, act of reverence, and a very self-conscious one at that. Although iconoclasm appears to have been a rejection of all images, in their own way the iconoclasts believed very deeply in the power of icons."(10) In the Elizabethan separatist Henry Barrow one can find evidence of the kind of "negative reverence" that Kibbey argues is constitutive of iconoclasm. Barrow was an iconoclast for whom, as Keith Thomas argues, "the arrangement of the very stones of church buildings was so inherently superstitious that there was nothing for it but to level the whole lot to the ground and begin again." Barrow writes that "the idolatrous shape so cleaveth to every stone, as it by no means can be severed from them whiles there is a stone left standing upon a stone."(11) Understanding the objects of "superstitious" worship as spiritual materializations of the demonic, iconoclasts like Barrow treat the material dimension of religion with a perverse respect.

If a vehement iconoclasm is always a kind of idolatry insofar as it grants the offending object immense power, the discourse of antifetishism is always an exercise in demystification. The modern conception of the fetish always implies distance, always implies an anthropological gaze that suggests that the barbarous other is guilty of some fundamental error in his/her relationship to objects. Protestant polemic of the sixteenth century tacked back and forth (sometimes in the same treatise, sometimes in the same sentence) between a negative iconoclastic reverence for the bewitching and beguiling object and a series of belittling gestures that reduced the material dimension of Catholic worship to the superstitious and unenlightened veneration of trash, trumpery, and trinkets. And it is precisely in these demystifying gestures that one can find a prehistory of the fetish. Prior to the emergence of the notion of the fetish on the coast of Africa in the early seventeenth century, reformation thinkers, entrenched in controversies surrounding icons and idols, vestments and sacraments, had been engaged in a century-long meditation on materiality and the veneration of objects. By reexamining the lexicon of this meditation we can begin to explore the historical relation between the traditional Christian understanding of iconoclasm and the emergence of the modern discourse of fetishism.


(1.) David Kaula, "Autolycus' Trumpery," Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 16 (1976): 289. In addition to Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton, Kaula finds these words used in the following texts: Jan vander Noot's A theatre ... of voluptuous worldlings, trans. T. Roest (1569); William Tedder's The recantations as they were seuerallie pronounced by Wylliam Tedder and Anthony Tyrell (1588); John Mayo's The popes parliament (1591); Francis Bunny's A comparison betweene the auncient fayth of the Romans, and the new Romish religion (1595); George Gifford's Sermons vpon the whole booke of the Revelation (1596); John Racster's William Alabasters seven motives (1598); John Rhodes's An answere to a Romish rime (1602); George Downame's A treatise concerning Antichrist (1603); Samuell Harsnett's A declaration of egregious popish impostures (1603); Jean Chassanion's The merchandise of popish priests (1604).

(2.) Oxford English Dictionary, second edition (1992).

(3.) Reproduced in Thomas Wright's Three Chapters of Letters Relating to the Suppression of Monasteries; Edited from the Originals in the British Museum by Thomas Wright (London: Nichols, 1843), 224.

(4.) Hugh Hilarie, The Resurreccion of the Masse (Strasburgh, 1554), B8r.

(5.) For the "Homilie against perill of idolatrie" see Certaine Sermons or Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches in the Time of Queen Elizabeth, facsimile of 1623 ed., eds. Mary Ellen Rickey and Thomas B. Stroup (Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints, 1968).

(6.) John Foxe. Actes and Monuments of matters most speciall and memorable (London: Peter Short, 1596), 1178.

(7.) Henry Smith, "The Sweete Song of Old Father Simeon, in Two Sermons," Sixe Sermons Preached by Maister Henry Smith (London, 1593), 26.

(8.) "The Problem of the Fetish": "The Problem of the Fetish, I," Res 9 (1985): 5-17; "The Problem of the Fetish, II," Res 13 (1987): 23-45; "The Problem of the Fetish, IIIa," Res 16 (1988): 105-23.

(9.) "The Problem of the Fetish, II," Res 13 (1987), 40.

(10.) Ann Kibbey, The Interpretation of material shapes in Puritanism: A Study of rhetoric, prejudice, and violence. (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 42.

(11.) Quoted in Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Scribner, 1971), 58, 59.

JAMES J. KEARNEY is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently completing a dissertation on the materiality of the book in Reformation England.
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Publication:Shakespeare Studies
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Date:Jan 1, 2000
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