British and Irish Literature Early Modern Prose, 1500-1650
Andrew Hadfield
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0019


Prose has, of course, always existed as a means of defining nonmetrical writing. It assumed particular importance in the early modern period (c. 1500–1650) after the advent of the printing press, which led to an exponential increase in the number of works produced in English. Many of these were in prose, the most widespread and straightforward mode of writing, because authors from a greater range of social backgrounds now had access to the public sphere, and the subjects available to a wider readership also increased dramatically. The early modern period, especially after the advent of the British Civil War (or “War of the Three Kingdoms”), witnessed the advent of newsbooks and news writing, a key category that defines most peoples’ understanding of print culture today. The period also saw major advances in science that were disseminated in prose treatises for large audiences, a transformation that had a major impact on the change in prose style. Other forms of prose writing also emerged in this period—notably the essay, an experiment in writing that was closely linked to autobiography. Prose can be conceived in two interrelated ways: as a form of writing and a series of subjects that are represented in prose. Either way, the category straddles the divide between fiction and nonfiction.

General Overviews and Critical Studies

Traditional overviews of prose are usually comprehensive and valuable for their range rather than particular critical comment: Pooley 1992 is an excellent example of this. But more recent works, notably Rhodes 1997 and Fowler and Greene 1997, have attempted to explain why prose matters and how and why it developed at a particular point in English literary history. Other studies of prose such as Kinney 1986 and Smith 1994 have also been conscious of the need to relate the history of prose to the history of the book, and they have examined the editions of works, as well as the readership and audience of prose writing. Taylor 1991 also reconstructs and analyzes the intellectual culture prose has developed from. This has often involved a consideration of the relationship between the high and low cultural registers of prose and where exactly certain works fit into the literary map of early modern England. Often the answer is that prose had an ambiguous, uncertain status and was read in different ways by different groups of readers, particularly women readers, as Travitsky 1996 demonstrates. This is why studies of readership are so important. On a more pedagogical note, instructors tasked with teaching early modern prose should consult Monta and Ferguson 2010, a collection of essays on how to teach prose, as well as a good indicator of how the field has become much more visible in literature departments.

  • Fowler, Elizabeth, and Roland Greene, eds. The Project of Prose in Early Modern Europe and the New World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    An innovative collection of essays that explores the variety of early modern prose writing—fictional and factual—in order to explain what was possible to produce in prose and how texts and styles worked. There are important essays on history writing, works on language reform, political works, scientific writing, and prose fiction.

  • Kinney, Arthur F. Humanist Poetics: Thought, Rhetoric and Fiction in Sixteenth-Century England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.

    Explores the types and varieties of 16th-century writing and shows the debt that many English writers had to the Latin prose writer Lucian and the desire of many significant writers to establish their own “republics of letters.”

  • Monta, Susannah Brietz, and Margaret W. Ferguson. Teaching Early Modern English Prose. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2010.

    A wide-ranging collection specifically designed for university teachers. Part 1 explores pedagogical issues. Part 2 examines particular genres, such as sermons and autobiography. Part 3 looks at individual works such as Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, and Part 4 provides suggestions about how prose might be taught.

  • Pooley, Roger. English Prose of the Seventeenth Century, 1590–1700. London: Longman, 1992.

    A comprehensive guide covering various kinds of narrative fiction and nonfiction including scientific writing, religious writing, as well as biography and autobiography.

  • Rhodes, Neil, ed. English Renaissance Prose: History, Language and Politics. Tempe, AZ: Medieval and Renaissance Text Society, 1997.

    An important and wide-ranging collection of essays, includes work on the Bible, Francis Bacon, Thomas More, Mary Wroth, Protestantism, Robert Burton, and John Bunyan.

  • Smith, Nigel. Literature and Revolution in England, 1640–1660. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

    A capacious study of the literature, polemics, and pamphlets produced during the English Civil War. Contains much valuable analysis of nonfictional prose, especially that produced by members of the variety of religious sects that proliferated in the 1640s and 1650s.

  • Taylor, Barry. Vagrant Writing: Social and Semiotic Disorders in the English Renaissance. London: Routledge, 1991.

    A study of the ways in which forms of writing challenged the social order by refusing to remain fixed and stable. Includes interesting readings of George Gascoigne’s prose fiction, Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie, Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, and Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier.

  • Travitsky, Betty S. “The Possibilities of Prose.” In Women and Literature in Britain, 1500–1700. Edited by Helen Wilcox, 234–266. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511470363

    Succinct overview of women’s writing in English, from Catherine of Aragon and Catherine Parr to Judith Drake’s Essay in Defence of the Female Sex (1596).

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