In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tudor Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works

British and Irish Literature Tudor Literature
Cathy Shrank
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0092


The 16th century saw many major developments in England: the consolidation and growth of the print trade; the religious upheavals of Reformation and Counter-Reformation; the increasing dominance of a humanist education; a greater confidence in the capabilities of English as a language of literature and scholarship, as English writers invested consciously in expanding and celebrating their native tongue; and the emergence of permanent public theaters, with a concomitant demand for new plays. All these issues shaped, and are reflected in, the period’s rich and diverse literature. Writing on Tudor literature generally takes a broad view of what constitutes the “literary,” exploring the rhetorical and fictive strategies of seemingly “non-fictional” texts, such as treatises and handbooks. Approaches are predominantly historicist, placing texts in their cultural, social, and political contexts, and there is a strong tradition of exploring the relationship between literature, politics, and religion. The shadow of C. S. Lewis’s categorization of much Tudor work as “drab” loomed large during the second half of the 20th century, and recent work is frequently animated by a desire to champion and recover neglected texts and authors, expanding the canon and showing how later writing is indebted to the work of preceding decades. Book historical approaches have played a significant role in recent studies, as has a desire to interrogate the institutional divide between “medieval” and “Renaissance.” The influence of humanism and the related topic of translation and imitation are rich fields of study. Studies of Tudor literature are characteristically eclectic and often range over a number of these themes and approaches; nor do they tend to focus on a single author. Cross-references are therefore provided at the start of each section.

General Overviews

The baleful influence of Lewis’s label “drab age” has been overturned in recent years, which have seen the publication of major collections of essays that pay sustained attention to the middle years of the 16th century, namely: Cartwright 2010, Hiscock 2008, Pincombe and Shrank 2009. These volumes cover the entire “Tudor Century” rather than skipping—as has often been the case—from Henrician court poetry to Edmund Spenser. See also Writing and Religion.

  • Cartwright, Kent, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Tudor Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444317213

    Substantial collection of thirty-one essays divided into four sections: “Historical and Cultural Contexts”; “Manuscript, Print, and Letters”; “Literary Origins”; and “Authors, Works, and Modes.” Topics covered include religion, witchcraft, the body, travel, versification, laughter, Italian and French influences, medieval continuities. Authors studied include Anne Askew; Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke; Thomas Kyd; Thomas Lodge; John Lyly; Christopher Marlowe; Thomas More; Thomas Nashe; Katherine Parr; George Puttenham; Philip Sidney; Edmund Spenser.

  • Hiscock, Andrew. Yearbook of English Studies, special double issue on Tudor Literature, 38.1–2 (2008).

    Wide-ranging collection of fourteen essays, encompassing some mainstream authors (Foxe, Marlowe, Shakespeare) and topics (prose fiction, print and patronage), but much of the collection explores culturally significant but overlooked texts, genres, and authors, including cheap print, translations of Plutarch, the medical dialogues of William Bullein, Mary Sidney Herbert’s Antonius, as well as coverage of a variety of Tudor drama.

  • Lewis, C. S. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama. Oxford: Clarendon, 1954.

    Coins the term “drab age,” which continues to rile mid-Tudorists; Lewis insists that it is not intended as a “dyslogistic” term, but since he contrasts it with the “golden age” of writers such as Sidney and Spenser, it inevitably became so. Lewis is prone to making sweeping (and often dismissive) generalizations, but the book is still a useful survey, and a starting-point for any defense of literary culture before 1580. Includes material on late medieval Scotland.

  • Pincombe, Mike, and Cathy Shrank, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature, 1485–1603. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199205882.001.0001

    Substantial collection of forty-five essays, paying particular attention to the period before 1580, and to noncanonical texts and authors; covers issues such as the production, dissemination, and reception of works (print and manuscript); the place of writing (e.g., at court, Inns of Court); interactions between writing, politics, and religion; the influence of humanism; travel; translation and imitation; and the ideological ramifications of language and style.

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